Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Making the Amnesiac Work for You

Welcome to Week 2 of the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop! I'm not always going to be counting weeks like this, but it feels good to be past week one and know that my methodology is going to work for all of you. As I did last week, I'll start by picking out worldbuilding words in color, then discuss some of the issues, and then go back through the excerpt with my thoughts and chit-chat.

This week's excerpt comes from Megs, who describes her world as "a doozy to walk into." Let's give it a shot.

***
Surfacing was hard. Her mind spiraled slowly upward through the dim fog of unconsciousness. Her eyelids cracked open and a wave of nausea crawled over her. Her stomach heaved, but she held it in and sat up, battling her own weak limbs and empty body.

She waited for her vision to clear.

Pale rose chiffon curtains hung down around her on a wide, soft bed. The coverlet was silken smooth with fire red and gold threads weaving circles of light and dark—joy and pain, her mind whispered—beneath her hands. Light streamed faintly in through the layers of sheer fabric all around her. No way out. She caught a shaky breath and lifted her hand to the chiffon, letting her fingertips touch it, see where she could barely see from the heaviness weighing down her eyes and hurting like a spreading ache throughout her entire body.

Her stomach rebelled again and she leaned over the side of the bed and emptied the emptiness in her stomach onto the stone slabs of the floor, etched with their ruby and flashing gold.

"You're awake."

She did not look up.

"I had hoped you would wake soon." A man's smooth, rich voice rolled over her, dark and deep, a low murmur beneath it drawing her out.

A flash of fire in her gut, her mind recoiling, sharp resentment spiking. She did not know why. She did not answer.

The man chuckled low, rumbling in his throat. "I have been waiting for you," he said.

Her hand clutched the chiffon curtain, grinding fingers into sweaty palms, marking the spread, scoring the curtain. She heaved again, then shook with the effort of staying alive.

Emptiness threatened to swallow her up.

Nothing. Nameless. Cryless. She swallowed at the emptiness inside her, heaving from the emptiness, losing what was not there to lose.

The man did not speak.

She answered, "You are?" The word was soft, lilted out in a heavy voice, strange to her empty ears. The language... It was nothing like the language of this man with his low, rumbling, smooth, drawing—manipulative, her mind whispered—voice.

"Ah." The man drew forward.

She felt him nearing her, drew her body up with effort and pulled away, but he was there, so close, his eyes and hair dark, skin fair, smile curving the lips pleasantly, dark clothes, hand rising and cupping her chin to make her look at him finally.

"You have come out of a place of darkness, my child," he said soothingly. "You are home now."

She stared at him wide-eyed, breath rasping between them, staring into the dark and knowing eyes.

A place of darkness...

It is something else, her mind whispered. A place—

But there it stopped. Words stilted. Memory bent.

His hand was warm against her skin and she leaned back her head just slightly, eyelids shuttering. She yanked her chin away and looked up at him with eyes of resentment, an unnamed fury boiling beneath her skin.
***

In this excerpt, we've got many fewer worldbuilding cues than the last one, but it's important to keep in mind that the avid SF/F reader is going to be thirsty for the world and surrounding context. Therefore, you can expect that they will extrapolate from anything available. Though many readers will come to a story with expectations (or at least having seen the cover!), I'm going to approach this as though I have no previous idea of what kind of story this is.

The first paragraph gives me "surfacing" and "wave," which tells me this is a world where people know water; "dim fog," suggests some possible climates and natural environments, but so far we could be almost anywhere, even a science fictional alien world. That's why I marked "eyelids" and "stomach," because they're suggestive of human anatomy. Indeed, people who are working with aliens often go to extreme lengths to mention strange elements of physiology, so these unremarkable body parts actually are a pretty solid indicator that our protagonist is human.

Our first concrete world indicator is the chiffon curtains. These could actually be present in our own world, as could the bed, but a silken coverlet has a very fantasy feel to it, and the red and gold threads contribute to that effect (I don't see a lot of red and gold silk in the homes I visit!). The next useful piece of information is the stone slabs of the floor. My vision immediately expands outward and I have her in a castle. I could be wrong - after all, this could be a rich merchant house with a stone floor, but castle is the first prototypical location on my list that fits with a stone floor under a curtained bed with silken covers. Especially once the word "ruby" is used (though I don't think there are actual rubies in the etched floor - are there?).

I'm also getting something interesting in the language. There are obviously two groups involved here, and two languages, and our protagonist speaks both of them. That added to the rage and hatred she feels for the man in the room suggest there may be enmity between these two groups, though we don't yet know much about it. It also makes me pretty sure that the man isn't telling the truth when he says that she's home. It gives me considerable curiosity about what will happen next (well done, Megs!).

As I read this scene, I can't help remembering that scene in the film, The Bourne Identity, where Jason Bourne is sitting at a diner and listing all the things he knows he can do, but can't explain. It's the contrast between what the amnesiac remembers, and what he or she doesn't remember, that teaches the reader the most. Most importantly for the purposes of world entry and grounding the reader, an amnesiac can generally still judge his/her surroundings in spite of considerable confusion and lack of specific memories. It's those judgments that will teach readers the most and make the author's job easier.

Okay, my thoughts and comments are below. For those just joining the workshop, please be aware that these are not corrections. It's more of a think-aloud critique exercise than anything else. Because I'm working with an amnesiac narrator, I'm going to be talking a lot, because I want to make sure we're noticing as many opportunities as possible.

***
Surfacing was hard. Her mind spiraled slowly upward through the dim fog of unconsciousness. Her eyelids cracked open [we might feel more grounded here if you used the subject pronoun "she" and let her open her own eyes. Our lack of a sense of place here seems to stem from her unconscious state, suggesting that we're in her head, but using a body part instead of a personal pronoun keeps us feeling more distant and less grounded.] and a wave of nausea crawled over her. Her stomach heaved, but she held it in and sat up, battling her own weak limbs and empty body.
[I notice that even though we're restricted here by the half-conscious amnesiac narrator, there are about seven metaphors in these first two sentences. 1. surfacing. 2. mind spiraling. 3. unconsciousness as a dim fog. 4. eyelids cracking open, perhaps like eggs. 5. nausea as a wave/6.? nausea crawling. 7. battling against weak limbs/body. Metaphors offer a terrific opportunity to show the terms in which your narrator thinks. Her memory may be gone, but her categories of reality will not have changed. Already I can hazard a guess that she knows how to swim (possibly plot relevant) and that she's got a strong will (surely plot relevant). These metaphors can be even more powerful if you align them with her personality and background.] She waited for her vision to clear.

Pale rose chiffon curtains hung down around her on a wide, soft bed. [If she can recognize chiffon curtains, she's probably still capable of judging things as familiar or unfamiliar, agreeable or disagreeable. What does she think of the pale rose chiffon? Does it suggest wealth to her? Is that good or bad? Does it seem like something she ought to recognize but doesn't?] The coverlet was silken smooth with fire red and gold threads weaving circles of light and dark—joy and pain, her mind whispered [I like this. It makes me wonder whether there is some personal or cultural association between those colors and the emotions she identifies] —beneath her hands. Light streamed faintly in through the layers of sheer fabric all around her. No way out. [I'm surprised by this. Yes, the fabric is all around her, but it's not binding her and it's pretty filmy; light suggests there is an exit nearby. So I'm not sure where she's getting this impression. It could be an instinctive assessment of her situation, but if so, maybe you could put in a "but" to contrast it with the curtains/light description] She caught a shaky breath and lifted her hand to the chiffon, letting her fingertips touch it, see where she could barely see [her being unable to see seems surprising because she had waited for her vision to clear, and her previous impressions are for the most part visual. Maybe this is a resurgence of fatigue?] from the heaviness weighing down her eyes and hurting like a spreading ache [a simile provides another possible place to hint at her background through your choice of what to compare the pain to] throughout her entire body.

Her stomach rebelled again and she leaned over the side of the bed and emptied the emptiness in her stomach onto the stone slabs of the floor, etched with their [maybe an adjective of judgment here. Does she think they're pretty? overly extravagant?] ruby and flashing gold.

"You're awake."

She did not look up.

"I had hoped you would wake soon." A man's smooth, rich voice rolled over her, dark and deep, a low murmur beneath it drawing her out.

A flash of fire in her gut, her mind recoiling, sharp resentment spiking. [This is interesting, because she's got such an ambivalent reaction to this man. I'm curious particularly about the fact that he attracts her first, repels her second. This seems like it should be meaningful. I wonder if there's a way you can identify one of these reactions as the reaction of her confused self, and the other as that of her core self, somehow.] She did not know why. [This is also interesting, because this is the point at which she becomes self-aware, i.e. aware of her own ambivalence and lack of understanding] She did not answer.

The man chuckled low, rumbling in his throat. "I have been waiting for you," he said.

Her hand clutched the chiffon curtain,[this is another place where I think a "she" subject might improve our grounding. She's having an intense emotional reaction, but we're only given the external effects of it. In fact, we've already seen that she's capable of verbal internalization (joy and pain), but we haven't heard any internalization from her since then. Is this a continuation of her revulsion for the man? How does she feel about the idea that he has been waiting for her?] grinding fingers into sweaty palms, marking the spread[so is she also holding the spread?], scoring the curtain [how, with her fingernails?]. She heaved again, then shook with the effort of staying alive.[this surprised me, because the grounding so far hasn't shown her emerging from a deathlike state, so much as a sleeplike state. I think a better picture of her judgment of her own internal states, even if confused, could clear this up.]

Emptiness threatened to swallow her up.

Nothing. Nameless. Cryless. She swallowed at the emptiness inside her, heaving from the emptiness, losing what was not there to lose.

The man did not speak.

She answered, "You are?" The word was soft, lilted out in a heavy voice, strange to her empty ears. The language... It was nothing like the language of this man with his low, rumbling, smooth, drawing—manipulative, her mind whispered—voice.[This is one of the most interesting points in the 500 words for me (language geek!). Given what I know about the differences between native languages and learned languages, I'm not sure about her being surprised by the sound of the language she herself speaks. Maybe, surprised that she has unconsciously chosen not to speak his language (which would be the polite option)? Does she have some reaction to the language he's speaking when he starts to speak at first? It is very common for people who speak multiple languages to place different kinds of moods and values on each one; you could take advantage of this.]

"Ah." The man drew forward. [You've used "draw" to describe his voice pulling her; this reappearance of the same word gives me the gut impression that the pulling is happening in a different direction. Did you intend this?]

She felt him nearing her, drew her body up with effort and pulled away, but he was there, so close, his eyes and hair dark, skin fair,[are there races in your world? any emotional reaction to this combination?] smile curving the lips pleasantly, dark clothes,[perhaps a single detail or two to help us see him (and his world) more clearly by grounding a sense of fashion?] hand rising and cupping her chin to make her look at him finally.

"You have come out of a place of darkness, my child," he said soothingly. [what is his view of this place of darkness? Does it have some special significance (religious or other) that might be reflected in his wording of the dialogue?] "You are home now."

[as I said, I get the immediate impression that he's lying. Even if she's going to believe him, this moment of mental vulnerability might be a good place to have her feel uncertainty, if not actual disagreement.] She stared at him wide-eyed, breath rasping between them, staring into the dark and knowing eyes.

A place of darkness...

It is something else, her mind whispered. A place—[and an evaluation. Fear? Awe, for something religious? Maybe part of this is that she has a different sense of what darkness means, or that she thinks the darkness was possibly caused by him; these things can potentially be expressed in metaphor.]

But there it stopped. Words stilted. Memory bent.

His hand was warm against her skin and she leaned back her head just slightly, eyelids shuttering. She yanked her chin away and looked up at him with eyes of resentment, an unnamed fury boiling beneath her skin.[This is the same sequence we see earlier, of appeal followed by revulsion. I like the way you have the ordering match. I'd like to see some internalization cues to give me a clearer sense of her internal struggle.]
***

Thank you very much to Megs for her courage in sending in this excerpt! I hope you find my comments helpful.

I've spoken in the past on the blog about cultural metaphors for life and daily activities; those metaphors, and gut evaluations of the value certain types of situations - racial appearances, objects, materials, etc. are all potentially very valuable to you. When you are working with a self-aware character, they can form an under-layer of cultural identity; when, as here, you are working with a character who is amnesiac, they can provide the reader with valuable cues which nonetheless don't detract from the reader's conviction that the person truly does not remember who they are.

I welcome any questions, or constructive and supportive comments.