Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Character arcs - how characters change

Do you have character arcs in your story? Chances are you do, even if you aren't aware of them, or don't call them that. On the basic level, character arcs are the changes that your character goes through over the course of the story. This can include coming to a decision, learning to make particular kinds of decisions differently, learning something important about life, getting to the bottom of a mystery, or any kind of development within the character's mind or personality.

Keeping conscious control of character arcs is a really valuable tool in crafting a story, particularly when you're working with a novel. You can have whole-novel-long story arcs, or smaller arcs like the protagonist's relationship to a minor character, or the protagonist resolving a subplot about something (say, a key he found). These typically all happen concurrently. One nice way of thinking of the climax of the story is to imagine your character arcs bouncing across your story like rocks skipped across water, and then to imagine that several of them must all land at the same spot at the same time - for maximum effect!

At this point I'd like to think about character arcs from two major angles: the plot direction, and the character direction.

Approaching character arcs from the plot direction is something you can do without even having conscious awareness of your plot arcs. You know what needs to happen in the story events, and you know what does happen in the story events, and as the character goes along, he or she just changes with his/her natural reactions to the story events. This is good. It's important (in my view) to keep two things in mind.

  1. Story events will make your character react and learn. If they don't, you're missing an opportunity.
  2. Some actions by the character will require them to learn things/change before they can happen.

This is where it's helpful to be able to trace the arc backward. If your protagonist needs to be able to fly a helicopter, then it would be good to set that up - either he knows how to do it already (mention how), or he learns how to do it, or he learns different sub-components of the skills at different points (the arc approach). Take the example of Trinity in The Matrix. She very quickly learns to fly a helicopter in the midst of the action, without any time for explanation. But the preconditions that make that possible (she has a data port; people can learn through data loads) have been set up in her actions, and in the actions of others, previously in the story. So if you find your beta readers going "huh?" when your character pulls out his sword and starts swinging, you might want to check his arcs and make sure swordsmanship and/or its precursors, were included in there somewhere. Another possible arc example is if your character has to make a very bad decision that runs contrary to his/her morality - think about how to lead into that decision with smaller plot elements that show the character's non-reliability, or his/her doubts, the ability of another character to sway him/her, etc. so as to prime the possibility of that uncharacteristic decision.

Then there's approaching a character arc from the angle of character change. "Over the course of the story my protagonist has to go from being a bigot to learning to accept others." "My character believes in the status quo, but when he finds out about X, he has to accept that the status quo has always been a lie."

This is what I do a lot, because a lot of my stories are about people changing their minds, or learning what the key to understanding is, etc. I go very psychological in my stories. If you're doing something similar, take a look at that change that needs to happen, and try to break it down into smaller components. The bigger the change, the more different conditions will have to be in effect for it to happen. If my bigot must change his mind, then he probably needs to be put in an extreme situation where only a member of his despised group can help him, and that person becomes a friend/exception as a result. But there will be many things that need to happen in order to create an extreme situation like that - and many things that must happen thereafter, once the bigot has actually engaged with the despised person, to solidify his impression and expand his doubts about his previous views into a broader personal change.

I'll be a bit more specific with another example. My highly educated and informed character X isn't someone you could call a bigot, but has always been taught that people have different fundamental natures. He then meets character M who is in disguise as a member of the same group as X. What will it take for him to accept that M and he have enough in common to maintain a relationship when he finally discovers who M is? He will:
  • discover the history of how the different groups were formed out of the same population
  • discover that M's group was the victim of a terrible injustice
  • go through a series of interactions with M during which he will come to have a high opinion of her.
Only when all these things are operating at once does it seem plausible for X to have the reaction he does when he finds out the truth.

Before I leave the topic of arcs, I want to mention a couple more things. First, do you need character arcs if you're writing about real characters and events - say in a memoir or in historical fiction based around factual events - when you know "what really happened"?

My answer is emphatically, "Yes." Character arcs are patterns of systematic change that build on themselves and give a story the sense of being strongly coherent and tied together. If you're working with real events, those should work their way into the character arcs. Character arcs don't have to be predictable, and they don't have to be uniform, but they should be logical and readers should be able to see their plausibility in the context of events - whether those events are fixed by history or not.

Second, what happens when you end up with an arc that you weren't intending to create? I'll take an example from my super writer-buddy Janice Hardy (because I'm sure she'll forgive me!). When I was helping her with an early draft of her Book 3 of the Healing Wars trilogy, I noticed that her character had changed. Nya had gone through so much and experienced so much pain that she appeared to have become less hurt by it. So I asked Janice whether that was what she had intended, and she told me it wasn't. I felt helpful, because after that Janice was able to go through and consciously track how Nya reacted to pain - so that it still made sense in context, but so it didn't accidentally lose the poignancy that it had had through the first two books.

Thanks to the folks at Absolute Write forum for giving me the idea for this post.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

So your character's "insane" - what does that mean?

There's something very mysterious, and often quite appealing, about having a character who thinks differently from other people. You might have a bad guy who's insane, or a character whose different way of thinking makes it hard to know whose side he/she is on, or you could have a protagonist whose voice you want to make really different.

So, what do you do?

I recommend diving in right away, and exploring the character - the parameters of their different concerns, their behaviors, etc. That's an important first step, because you'll very likely have excellent instincts about what kind of behavior and thinking would best fit into your story as a whole. However, once you've got the basics of their thinking and behavior sketched out, the next step I recommend is looking around to find out what exactly is going on with your character's thinking.

When I first created my antagonistic character, Nekantor, he was power-hungry and mean, paranoid, and was never satisfied with the performance of his servants. The problem was, he came across as stereotypically bad, and I couldn't really make any of his behaviors extreme without having it look like I was working too hard as an author. Then I realized that his paranoia could be part of an actual mental disorder, and after some looking around, I found the perfect one for him: obsessive-compulsive disorder. A person with this disorder will have repeated anxious thoughts surrounding a particular fear - such as a fear of germs, or a fear that their parents will die, or a fear of Colorado (seriously). Those thoughts will then give rise to ritual behaviors intended to relieve the anxiety. Nekantor is obsessed with control, and in particular, he fears things getting out of the placements (literal or figurative) that he has put them in. This allows him to be much more extreme in his behaviors (like checking rituals), but also makes him more vulnerable and believable as a character. It applies not only to his servants' performance and the arrangement of his rooms, but to people behaving appropriately for their caste, and to people trying to keep Nekantor from controlling their business. It gives rise (in part) to his paranoia. If he were cured of it, would he still be a bad guy? Oh, yes. But he wouldn't be nearly as interesting.

Anxiety disorders are extremely interesting, and can add dimension to almost any kind of character, even if you decide only to use them in a mild and non-pathological form. Take Indiana Jones and his fear of snakes, for example. I highly recommend this site at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) which can provide you with a basic introduction to the features of several different anxiety disorders. One of the most interesting things here, to my mind, was that each entry has a statement from a former sufferer of the disorder about how it felt when they were at their most anxious. If you're planning to write from the point of view of someone who has an anxiety disorder, this is very useful stuff.

You may have heard of the book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, whose point of view protagonist has Asperger's syndrome. Here is the NIMH site dealing with Autism Spectrum disorders, of which Asperger's is listed as one mild form. You may also be interested to learn about Temple Grandin, who has used her different way of thinking to help her be a unique resource in animal management. Here is a fantastic video of her talking about different kinds of minds and the unique resource they are.

You may also be interested to learn about bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, or eating disorders (all these are the NIMH links).

When this is well done, it's incredibly compelling. It also requires a great deal of research to be done well. I encourage you to look through the NIMH links, which I've found to be very informative. Do also see what you can find of real examples - either contacts of your own, or videos, etc. Find as much information as you can to make your character portrayal ring true.

There's also a lot of room for individuality in the way you treat a character, obviously. When I work with Nekantor I try to make his narrative reflect his obsessive tendencies by having him think repetitively and be very judgmental, in addition to having him engage in compulsive behaviors. When I work with my character the History Keeper, I try to keep her subtle, even though she's delusional and has an unusual condition called hypergraphia (she can't stop writing).

I hope you find this post gives you some resources to strengthen your unusually-thinking characters, by grounding yourself in research on actual mental disorders.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A lovely little article that will make you laugh

Thanks to my friend Andrew Sullivan on Facebook, I found this blog post, which talks about a linguistic study of contrastive reduplication. This is a very common phenomenon in colloquial spoken English, though you've probably never noticed it. Examples are things like this.

"Well, it was big. But not BIG-big."
"Sure I like him. I just don't LIKE HIM-like him."

So if you'd like a good giggle about reduplication in English and other languages, check it out.

Contest to win "Servant of the Underworld"

My friend and fabulous writer Aliette de Bodard is holding a contest on her website right now, to correspond with the US release of her Aztec fantasy/murder mystery, Servant of the Underworld. If you'd like to take a guess at where she'll be going for her honeymoon, you could win a prize pack! To find out more, check out:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Intimacy and Invasion

There's a fine line between intimacy and invasion.

Closeness is desirable and yet terrifying. I'm sure you can think of an example from your own life where just when you were starting to get close to someone they panicked and backed off. If the wrong person tries to get close to you, don't you feel that panic and revulsion?

To me, this is one of the richest sources of story conflict imaginable. In "Cold Words" (Analog Oct. 2009), my character Rulii said about his friend Parker,

"I do not know to love or cringe, that a foreign creature can nudge me so close."

Another classic example of the same thing is the relationship between Genly Ai and Therem Harth rem ir Estraven in Ursula K. LeGuin's book The Left Hand of Darkness. Two individuals who are fundamentally incompatible for intimacy find themselves thrust into an intimate situation. The conflict - the tension - it's incredible! And it even demonstrates what I was saying about intimacy, invasion and retreat, because when the two attempt to speak through telepathy, Estraven discovers that Genly's mental voice sounds like the voice of his dead brother, and asks him not to try to speak to him that way again.

You could argue that the way that the "Ewu children" are treated in Nnedi Okorafor's new book Who Fears Death (DAW 2010) is related to this intimacy/invasion borderline. These children are born of unions - either willing or unwilling - between two races, one of which is trying to eliminate the other through genocide. The Ewu children, as evidence of intimacy between people who are "supposed" to be separate, engender extreme reactions of revulsion, disgust, contempt, and even violence.

If you've ever wondered about the draw of romance novels, I think it has a lot to do with the fascination of intimacy. Intimacy is the goal - revulsion and the fear of invasion are the risks. It's a conflict that speaks deeply to all of us, even though it's not necessarily always about love or sex. Rulii has lost the support of his family because of personal choices, and is desperately lonely, but afraid to pursue the brotherly intimacy he has begun to feel with the human linguist, Parker. There are opportunities too to play with intimacy/invasion conflict in the mentoring relationship that is so common in stories. Obi-wan acts like Luke's father, but who is his real father? And who does Luke get angry with when he finds out? Harry longs for his lost parents and wants to get closer to Dumbledore, but struggles when Dumbledore pushes him away for his own protection... Look also at all the buddy movies out there, and how the guys try to prove their worthiness to each other without getting too close. I'm sure there are many many more examples.

If you're writing a story, look around for possible intimacy/invasion conflicts. One might be at the center of your story, as with my novel in progress For Love, For Power. Or there might be a minor character in your story, perhaps a confidant or guide to the protagonist, who could take on additional dimension if you can explore the relationship and find where the intimacy/invasion borderline lies between them. It could be as simple as styles of politeness, where one group of people expresses alignment by honoring the autonomy of others, and another group expresses alignment by using expressions of intimacy with them (oh, the possibilities for offense!).

The borderline between intimacy and invasion is a powerful ally to any writer who wants to intensify conflict in a story and increase the engagement of readers.

It's something to think about.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

More thoughts on Language and Thought, and gender

I've been sharing multiple links recently about the relationship between language and thought. One is this one from the Wall Street Journal; another is this one from the New York Times. Here's a quote that I found particularly interesting:

Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

This brings us (and Guy Deutscher, the author of the NYTimes piece) back to issues I've discussed like grammatical gender and relative versus absolute direction, as well as others like the defining of time periods (past, present, future). Here's another terrific quote from the article:

When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.

This really spoke to me. As a speaker of French, I have always found it difficult to remember the grammatical gender of words. I know a large core number, but once I start getting to the periphery of that, I start having to guess. It's so frustrating! For the first time, during my visit to France this summer, I started having a glimpse of the worldview that lies behind knowing all these grammatical genders - the fact that when a French speaker (or Spanish speaker, etc.) looks at an object, it simply appears inherently masculine or feminine. We English speakers have an easy time differentiating between events in the past, the present, and the future, which our language requires us to specify.

While I'm not sure I could attempt it without living in France, I got a glimpse of what the world might look like if I thought in this way. It really stretched my mind into a place beyond where it had been before, and that's one of the most rewarding feelings I can imagine. Perhaps that's why I try to share it with other people through my stories.


Thank you all so much for your wonderful comments and reactions on my linguistic explanation of Aurrel. In that context I think I should mention that I'm willing, indeed eager, to offer linguistic advice to those who feel they would like it for their own language projects. In the past I have done language design and worldbuilding workshops - with my current time commitments, those have become more difficult, but that doesn't mean I don't want to discuss your languages and cultures with you! So please feel welcome to post comments or questions.

Thanks again!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Kitchen design - a feminist revolution?

It's a red-letter day for interesting links! Here's one I picked up thanks to my friend Tanja Nathanael, about how the advent of kitchen design (in 1926) was actually intended to raise the kitchen to a worthy status, and the woman working in it, too.

Why we should use words carefully in teaching writing

I came across this great blog post the other day, on the blog Les Edgerton on Writing. It's a terrific discussion of how words are used differently in teaching creative writing from the way they are used by the general population, and how that can lead to problems when people misunderstand the intended meaning. Do you know what "start with action in your story" really means? If you have any doubts, you should definitely check out this post.

Where did the word "cell" originate?

Check out this interesting article from NPR's Science Friday, which explains the basics of how cell theory arose, and how the word "cell" came to be used for the building blocks of living organisms.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Alien Language: an introduction to Aurrel

I had a question over in one of my posts on Science In My Fiction asking whether I'd ever done an in-depth description of one of my languages here on the blog, and in fact I hadn't! So I thought I'd take some time to discuss Aurrel, the language that appeared in my Analog Oct. 2009 novelette, "Cold Words."

Whenever I start designing a new language, I look for one critical feature that will make the language unique, and work outward from there. For Aurrel, the critical feature was non-reciprocal status language. Thus, in any conversation between two Aurrel people, one of them will speak one dialect and one another: the one of lower status will use Warm words as a sign of self-lowering and respect, and the one of higher status will use Cold words as a recognition of his/her right to dominate the other speaker. This is a form of politeness (pragmatics).

Higher status: Cold words -><-Warm words: Lower status

This of course requires that people always know which of them has the higher rank. The next language-building task then became differentiating the two dialects in a way that readers would be able to recognize. I didn't want to use phonology or morphology, because those would be too far under the radar for most readers. I wanted to minimize the number of actual alien words used in the story so as to maximize comprehension for readers! So I chose the discourse/sentence function level - let me explain.

Linguists will often talk about "speech acts," or what one is trying to accomplish with the things that one says. Some classic examples are requests and commands, which are accomplished simply by speaking them. "Go to bed!" "May I have that pencil?" Pronouncements and declarations are another example: "I now pronounce you husband and wife." "I hereby declare this park open." For Aurrel Warm words, these things are accomplished just as we would do them in English, without special marking. In Cold words, by contrast, each sentence (or series of sentences of the same function) has to be marked at the beginning with a word that indicates what kind of action will follow. Here are some examples.

Bow-bow: do as I say! Now, given that the Aurrel are wolflike people, this does tend to evoke "bow-wow," but in fact it's a command marker, which commands the other person to bow to them.

Bel-belly: I don't mean to anger you. When dogs or wolves want to show extreme submission, they show their bellies, so I chose this word to mark acts of submission. You may notice that this marker is redundant with the use of Warm words... However, the Aurrel have a special rule that Warm words must not be used in the presence of the Majesty - so in audiences with him, one would hear this marker a lot.

Sniff-sniff: what did you say? I decided that a curious wolf's sniffing would be used to mark questions.

I designed these markers intentionally to be repetitive: specifically, to duplicate the first syllable. Reduplication is often seen in morphology (word endings etc). Since my Cold words speakers had originally been tundra hunters, I reasoned that this style of speech would be consistent with having to communicate on the run. First you'd want to get the person's attention with a short bark, and then give a hint for what you were about to say, then say it when you were sure they were listening. In this way, a concept of general language evolution helped me to decide how to develop specific features of the language on the word level.

The Cold Words reduplication also extends to names of people and places.
  1. Rulii (Warm words) => Ru-rulii (Cold words) the main character
  2. Aurru (Warm words) => Au-aurru (Cold words) the planet
Other morphological features of the language were a bit more predictable. Aurrel uses suffixes, which are evident in the change between the name of the planet - Aurru - and its language/people, Aurrel.

This brings me to phonology. I designed the Aurrel phonology on the basis of the idea that these people had mouths like wolves. The language has no unvoiced sounds, like p/t/k/s/f. Thus, all sounds are voiced, like b/d/g/z/v. This wouldn't be a requirement for a people with wolf mouths, but I felt it was consistent with wolf howls as a language feature. I also felt that, with their long tongues, they would have multiple versions of L and R. Since there was no way for me actually to render the sounds I imagined (unlike in a film!), I used very small differences in spelling to mark them. Thus:
"rr" is not the same sound as "r"
"ll" is not the same sound as "l"

I also expanded the language's fricatives. These are sounds like "v" and "z" (and "s" and "f" and "th", though these don't occur in Aurrel). In addition to V and Z, therefore, I gave them a fricative version of g, which I spelled "gh."

the stop "b" corresponds to the fricative "v" (lips)
the stop "d" corresponds to the fricative "z" (alveolar)
the stop "g" corresponds to the fricative "gh" (velar)

At this point, I will ask you for fun's sake to imagine the pronunciation of this word:

gharralli (a small fierce toothy animal similar to a weasel)

In fact, when asked to pronounce Aurrel accurately myself, I feel rather nervous about it, because it does sound quite dramatically throaty! I'm afraid I would need more practice to get over the nervousness.

There are only a few more things which deserve mention here. I didn't do much designing of Aurrel syntax because the story had no need for complete sentences rendered entirely in Aurrel (as opposed to English). However, I did play with something called subcategorization. When we use certain verbs, we expect certain other structures to follow them:

He appears nervous.
He shows signs of being nervous.
It reminds me of my indigent childhood.
It drags me down with memories of my indigent childhood.

I deliberately switched some of these around. In Aurrel, you would say,

He shows nervous.
It drags of my indigent puphood.

What was great about this for my purposes was that it felt very alien, yet was pretty comprehensible in context.

Lastly, I did a lot of work on semantics. Using words like "puphood" instead of "childhood" is relatively simple. Naturally, a person born in the same litter is a "littermate" - but as a result of that, the word "mate" for a lover sounded odd, so I switched it to "consort."

However, there were a few more major semantic issues that came up in the story.

The first is that Aurrel has no word for "friend." The Aurrel have two major opposing concepts in their society: interdependence, and rank. "Friend" doesn't fit into this system because it implies interdependence without requiring a rank relationship. Thus, the names for relationships are somewhat different. A "huntmate" is a person involved in pursuing the same activity or project as oneself, but is not necessarily close. This is contrasted with the relationships of "littermate" and "consort" which are considered to be "skin-close," where interdependence is so strong that rank has little influence (none, in intimate situations).

The second is that the hunt is what I call an organizing metaphor for Aurrel life (much as the journey is for us). Pursuing a goal is equated with hunting. The goal itself is the "quarry." If a huntmate suddenly stops helping you toward your goal and tries to take the project in a different direction, they'd say he had "lost pace with you." These examples are extensive and can be found all over the language.

The third (and last, for this post) is the contrast between Warm and Cold. Warm is seen as comforting and intimate, but also as lowly. Cold is cruel, but also valuable and exalted. The Majesty's mark of rank is glass beads coated on the inside with silver, called silver-glass or "royal ice." Rulii calls the human character "warm" at one point in the story, but then feels obliged to add, "no insult, but from my Lowland heart." There are two Aurrel races: one heavy furred, the tundra hunter group, and one downy-furred, the Lowland group. The insulting/exalting characteristics of warm and cold came about when the tundra folk conquered the Lowlanders, and everything about warmth came to be associated with baseness and submission. The language gradually then developed in such a way that the tundra dialect became Cold words, or dominator's words, and the Lowland dialect became Warm words, or submissive words.

I hope that gives you an idea of how Aurrel works, and the different things I considered as I was designing it - and perhaps also helps you think through one version of the process you might take to develop your own alien language. There's a good basic description of this process by Megs over at Rabia Gale's blog today, for an additional perspective on the matter!

Monday, September 13, 2010

How do details make a fictional world "real"?

It is often said that details are what make a fictional world feel real. I heartily agree - but it's not just any type of detail, nor is it every type of detail. Details are especially easy to get lost in. How do you get both breadth and depth in your world? How do you pick the details that really give it flavor? How do you avoid drowning a reader in details and losing track of a story?

Let me take this a bit at a time, because details should typically be approached a bit at a time, in layers (it should soon become evident exactly why).

I'll start with worldbuilding. Often, when building a world, you want to know as much as you can - about the setting, ecology, architecture, social structure, manners - really everything you can possibly think of. So start with the basic principles upon which the story premise will rest. Then from there, try to work those basic principles down onto the smaller, more intimate scale. Work from institutions down to family structure, to manners, to individual definitions of identity and personal crisis.

That's just the start, however. The details required for worldbuilding are more general and more nebulous by definition; they are restricted more to the level of general principle. It's hard to push down as deep as you need to when you're working with worldbuilding detail alone.

To go further, you need to start writing the story.

The story will help you understand which details you need, because it gives you intimacy in the form of characters, their homes and relationships. The identity of a point of view character will have a huge influence on what he or she notices - as a thief will notice the placement of exits and the worth of valuables, while a snobby fashion-conscious lady will notice the details of clothing and of objects in a room.

Details also contribute to the emotional impact of a scene. If the character feels frightened, you can certainly say so - but you can also include details like sharp edges or the shape of shadows, details that deliberately contribute to the emotional mood of the scene even if they aren't part of the character's conscious knowledge.

Furthermore, details can work for you in establishing a theme for your story. Aligning details so they are described in terms that fit the worldview that underlies your project is the way I often like to think about it. I like to line up objects my Varin characters notice, and give them similes that directly relate to the fact that they live underground (because I can't draw attention to it otherwise, since they consider it so normal). Another technique is to place a certain detail, say the scent of oranges - in spots where a certain emotional mood is being achieved, and thereby link those spots together even if they aren't obviously linked in other ways.

There's a special value in details that go unnoticed. Very often the details of manners and speech will be partly subconscious, so that readers won't track exactly what it is that was said, but they'll get a "feeling" about it. I recently wrote a pair of lines as follows:

Character 1: "The music - I don't know how you do it," he stammered. "Is it the blessing of Heile on the Kartunnen[caste]? What's your secret?"
Character 2: "I - well in fact, sir, I don't know why I can do it."

I don't know if you can tell, but perhaps you can, that Character 1 is of higher social status but feeling quite awkward about asking questions. Character 2 is of lower social status, but the fact that he doesn't precisely echo the phrasing "how you do it" is a hint that something else is going on (to be divulged later).

I personally feel that it's worth being very attentive to social cues in dialogue! This will not surprise those of you who know me.

Finally, there's great value in the occasional unexpected detail. When we think "room" it's easy to think "door" and "furniture," but more fun if you throw in "cast bronze door" or "brass furniture." If you establish "market," many people's minds will leap instantly to the aisles of their nearest Safeway, or to a medieval market with booths, carts and the occasional horse - but not necessarily to the overpowering smell of cheese, or to camels and baskets of dates. Have fun; confound the easy expectations and your world will start to pop.

As you go through life, keep your eye out for places where details surprise you. Those can provide you with good opportunities to surprise people in your story. It's probably not surprising to have a person, when moving from one country to another, notice a change in the looks of the people, or the type of houses, or the food. But look for the unexpected.

I noticed something in France while I was there - it hit me all of a sudden, though the details of it had been collecting in my head for some time. It was about strawberries, when you buy them in a box (as I have done) in different countries. A box of strawberries in France isn't quite like a box of strawberries in Japan, or in the US. It's strange, but true, even when the plastic boxes are the same shape. A box of French strawberries will typically be full of relatively small fruit of varying sizes, all of which are very sweet. A box of Japanese strawberries will contain all strawberries of precisely the same size, and usually the same level of sweetness as well. Strawberries in an American box will vary in size, with at least two or three being very large and shiny red, but not necessarily sweet. This is one of the oddest patterns I have ever noticed, I admit, and I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to use it in a story as such. However, I could easily imagine myself putting a similar thought into the head of a traveler, such as, "I miss the fruit of my homeland; it was smaller, but always sweet."

Details like this don't need to be piled on a reader. The most critical factor to consider when writing, as opposed to worldbuilding (where profusion can be good), is the relevance of any particular detail to the story. If you pick your details carefully, keeping them well-suited to the character, to the mood and to the story's overall purpose, you don't need many for a large impact, and your world will feel much more "real."

Diamond Star

Check out this link - a white dwarf star that is actually a 10 billion trillion trillion carat diamond!

More ancient ruins...

I just picked up this link today - the oldest Roman baths in Asia Minor have been discovered in Sagalassos, Turkey. Underneath yet another set of Roman baths... why am I not surprised?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Cheerios and Space - and Language and Culture?

Here's an interesting little article about "the Cheerios effect" (I kid you not), in which Cheerios in a bowl of milk will clump together and aggregate at the sides of the bowl - and how this relates to space!

I think this article is particularly interesting because of the way it shows that simple everyday effects can be observed on vastly larger scales. The underlying truths of a world (physical laws in this case) are observable on multiple different levels.

This is also true of language. The most fundamental principles of a language, whether strictly grammatical or pragmatics-related, can generally be observed even in very small recorded samples of speech in that language. As examples I'd give grammatical gender in French and Spanish, and casual versus formal speech style in Japanese (though there are many more). I find the speech style example particularly interesting because it has social consequences, not just grammatical ones. This is where you start seeing that this phenomenon also reaches into the area of culture.

I've been writing this week in my Varin world, and rejoicing at the fact that I'm so much a better writer now than when I first designed it. The reason why? Well, because when you first design a world it's really easy to lay out a lot of general principles about how the society works. It's much harder to explore how those general principles play out on the smaller scale of individual interactions.

If you say, "The nobility are isolated and think they're better than anybody else," it's easy to have them go around acting too broadly. They dress and speak loudly, they insult others, they just basically act like arrogant snobs in a really really obvious way. I am embarrassed to say that this is what they were like when I first wrote them. However, this isn't really how things work. These are people like everyone else, and they should have just as many arrogant snobs among them as other social groups do - which is to say, not everyone. A single individual's main personality traits should be at the fore (as for example, my relatively modest and kind protagonist, Tagret); their cultural bias should be reflected on the small scale in their unconscious reactions.

To explore a bit further into the Varin example, the nobility of Varin typically don't mix with any caste but the servant caste, who are an integral part of their everyday life. They can be either polite or impolite to their servants depending on the person. They have dealings with the officer caste (police, army, fire brigade etc.) in certain fixed contexts. However, they almost never see anyone of lower caste than that. An insensitive nobleman or noble lady, having to deal with merchants or artisans, might express distaste, but someone like Tagret feels mostly out of his depth, like he doesn't know what to do with them. He tries to be polite but at the same time will try to distance himself from them, unconsciously, to remove himself from the discomfort of not knowing the appropriate way to treat these people socially.

If your world has social principles, treat them as respectfully as you would the laws of physics. Don't just slap them on over the top. Realize that just like the Cheerios effect, they will have repercussions that go all the way down to the smallest interactions, including the subtleties of the ways people talk to each other.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cave photos!

For those of you who may be interested in caves for worldbuilding purposes, here is a terrific set of cave photos from all over the world, collected by National Geographic. The link will take you to one of the photos, but from there you should be able to navigate to the others. Extremely cool.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Architecture: how it reflects history and culture

How do people build in your world?

In my post about building materials, I started by bringing up the links between architecture and environment/setting. In this post I'm going to talk about the links between architecture and history. The buildings you choose to put in your world will tell readers (and the people of your world) about the history of these people and their civilization.

When we were in Europe we went to the city of Aosta in Italy. This city, we learned, was once called Augusta Praetoria, and was the place where Roman troops stopped for the winter before invading Gaul. It's been the center of its region since then. You wouldn't necessarily know this just by glancing at it from the highway, but if you walk into the town, it's hard to miss. Augustus' Arch, the Praetorian Gate, the Roman Theater... all are easy to access. The theater was great because it had a modern theater built right beside the ancient, crumbling one. Very cool - but that wasn't the most impressive part.

Aosta has a cathedral, built in the 11th century and remodeled a bit in the 15th and 16th centuries. It rises majestically above the roofs of the town - and that's all you see if you just walk by. If you go in, however, you can find the entrance of the church that was built before it, in the 3rd century. The cathedral was built right over the top of the old church, but the arches are still there, the columns and the carved capitals that were made in the years 200. If you then walk out of the cathedral and around the corner, you'll find the entrance to the Roman forum. Yes, the Roman forum is underneath the 3rd century church - and it's huge. It's this gigantic corridor of stone arches, now lit by electric light, and seeming way too huge to exist underneath two other buildings this far underground. I wish I could show you a photograph - but really you should go and see it with your own eyes. This gives the town the sense of permanence that I described in my post about building materials. It is set in stones more than two thousand years old.

How many fantasy or science fiction worlds do you know which have this kind of history reflected in their architecture? My answer would be, not as many as I'd like.

Just in case you're concerned that I'm suggesting everyone create modern Italy in their fictional worlds, that's not it at all. Paris is full of the architecture of other times, even down to the crypts underneath the city. Kyoto, Japan is similar, ranging from the ultra-modern to the ancient.

Kyoto is an interesting example because of the fact that their primary building material is wood, not stone. You can walk through the streets and see modern vending machines just ten feet away from the entrance to a small city shrine or temple. You can park your car (not that I ever had one) in the lot and walk in to see the temple of Sanjusangendo, originally built in the 12th century and containing more than a thousand statues carved in the 12th and 13th centuries. You can go visit the Kiyomizu temple, and then read about it in The Tale of Genji and realize that it wasn't new even in the year 1000, but was built back in the 8th century.

Ok, so at this point I'd like to ask another question. What kind of place doesn't have old buildings? There are several possibilities.

1. A place where people build structures that could potentially be permanent, but where some historical event has destroyed all structures over a certain age.

Tokyo is rather like this. It suffered the Great Kanto Earthquake, and then the carpet-bombings of World War II... and as a result, all of the oldest buildings date from a particular (more modern) era. In a case like this, it's important to consider what kind of impact a very destructive event will have on culture, and what less tangible evidence will be available in the mental states of the population.

2. A place where building materials are quickly broken down by the elements.

Jungle dwellings might well be like this. In this case, other evidence of human history might be available, like tools or artifacts of various types.

3. A place where the population is nomadic.

If the population is nomadic, then habitations have to be light enough to be carried. They may or may not be made from durable enough materials to be recognized as human tools/structures long after they have been abandoned.

4. A place where the cultural paradigm calls for constant renewal.

This is certainly a possibility. However, I can't see that it would make much sense for extremely durable architecture (stone, for example) to coexist with such a cultural paradigm. It would be much more likely to be present in a place where building materials broke down relatively quickly.

5. A place that has only recently become inhabited by humans.

Architecture in a place like this would probably be either made with local materials or with imported materials, but all more or less in the same architectural style, since everything would be built at the same time. Still, this lack of history is in itself a sort of history - indicating that the people are recent arrivals.

I'm sure there are other reasons why older architecture might not endure, but at this point I think it's worth pointing something out: the presence of architecture means something - and the absence of architecture also means something. So if you're creating a society and they don't have any old architecture, no problem - but make sure there's a good societal reason why it's not there. Think about where history is preserved in your society - in behaviors, in stories or written records, in artifacts or in buildings. What kinds of historical events might have influenced this world? In what kind of contexts might evidence of that history be available for discovery?

It's worth thinking about - and on that note, I think I'll include this link to some photos by Sergey Larenkov, which overlay images from World War II on images of the very same buildings from 2010.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Washing Clothes across cultures

While we were in Paris, my family and I went to visit the Parc Asterix. I'm not sure how many of you are familiar with the character of Asterix, but he's quite famous in many countries - a little Gaul from the time of the Roman Empire who loves to cause the Romans trouble along with his friend Obelix. We had fun, and saw lots of statues (and some costumed characters) of the folks from the comic books doing various things like riding in boats etc. One of the things they had was a statue of a Gauloise (woman from Gaul) washing clothes in a river. This was the moment when I had to explain washing clothes in a river to my kids.

We don't exactly pound our laundry on a rock. But there are still quite a few people in the world who do.

I took this as one example of a big difference in technologies surrounding the washing of clothes. However, what impressed me more was the more subtle difference surrounding the washing of clothes that I encountered in France and Switzerland.

Nobody had dryers. When asked, they would say, "A drying machine? Why?"

Well, in fact, it's a good question. I guess you could say that we Americans like to do everything as quickly and easily as possible and never mind the expense of energy or money. Yes, there are times when it rains. In France, there could be rain on any given day, since they don't have the unnatural division of rainy season and dry season that we have here in California.

The interesting thing from a TTYU point of view is the way that different values have been placed on these machines. Everyone has a washer; it's natural (that's another issue, but it's not being called into question in the US/Europe contrast). But what does it mean to have a dryer, or not to have a dryer?

In the US, it's surprising (at least!) to hear that someone doesn't have a dryer. In some cases, the lack of a dryer is associated with poverty. There is no such association (no surprise) in Europe. Having a dryer there is seen as a waste of money, bad for the environment (this view has become strong recently), and damaging to the clothes. Contrast this with Japan, where we had a dryer, but where our washer was so gentle it hardly washed things - and this was because it was believed that a stronger washer would damage the clothes!

So, for those world builders out there - it's valuable to have striking differences in technology, etc. but also good to explore how subtler differences in attitude lead to differences in what people use, like these washing machines. Just because a technology is available doesn't mean that people will want to use it, so consider why it is that people make the technology choices they do.

It's worth thinking about.

Article on Darwin - and terraforming!

I found this interesting article today. It talks about Charles Darwin's experience on Ascension Island, and how it relates to ideas about terraforming planets. Fascinating.