Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Gender in Language: A Worldbuilding Hangout Report

This is a report on the Worldbuilding Hangout that I held two weeks ago, on November 16th. I was joined by a large (wonderful!) group including Cheryl Barnett, Dale Emery, Glenda Pfeiffer, Harry Markov, Janet Harriet, Kay Holt, and Kyle Aisteach. Our topic was Gender in Language, and boy, did we have fun with this discussion!

We started out brainstorming examples of language that stood out to us for their portrayal of gender. I mentioned the phrasing in Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness that has tickled me ever since I first read it: "my landlady, a voluble man..." What do you do when you're trying, as LeGuin did, to portray someone with no gender? Well, sometimes she alternates as above, to confound our expectations. When she wants it not to stick out, however, she picks one.

Kyle talked about using "zee" for non-gendered pronouns. One of the hazards of trying to find a new pronoun is to retain the sense of specificity while gaining a sense of neutrality. The pronoun system is notoriously resistant to change (that is, when it comes to keeping readers with you). Cheryl mentioned Melissa Scott's "Shadow Man" which uses five genders - now there's a challenge, but clearly it can be done well!

Of course, the most common solution to the problem of gender neutrality is to use the plural pronoun "they." This has become extremely common, though I wouldn't say it's become part of accepted grammar. Kay and I both remarked that language doesn't tend to create a lot of "new stuff" - it has accepted regions and methods of creating new words, but doesn't do much to change the core elements (like pronouns). Kyle and Harry mentioned how German concatenates nouns to create new vocabulary, and in fact languages do a lot of borrowing words back and forth to create new concepts. As you may know, German has masculine, feminine, and neuter articles associated with nouns of each category.

I mentioned that the lack of gendered nouns in English (English is unusual in this regard compared to most of its direct relatives). Apparently there was an early confluence between English and Old Norse, which didn't have gendered nouns, and it was at that historical point that English lost its own use of gendered nouns. Finnish uses no gendered pronouns at all, but languages that do assign gender are extremely common. We speculated that this might have originated (back in the mists of time) from the human tendency to anthropomorphize things. However, there have been salient examples of flexibility, or at least unusual usage. When women came to power in the age of the Pharaohs, they were referred to as kings, not queens.

Though we've worked very hard to start using words that are gender neutral (congresswoman -> representative, steward/stewardess -> flight attendant), gender still has enormous influence on language and thought. I once read a study where young French- and Spanish-speaking children were asked to create cartoon characters out of objects. Without fail, they chose to assign genders to the characters that corresponded to the genders of the nouns in their language. I once also linked here to a great NPR article which talked about the influence of gender on language - it turns out that people tend to associate adjectives to nouns according to their gender. For example, people speaking languages in which the word "bridge" is masculine will talk about bridges as heavy, tall or strong while people speaking languages in which "bridge" is feminine will talk about bridges as light and graceful. The gender of the noun influences the perception of the genderless object.

Kay mentioned that colonialism can force a language on people - such as Spanish in the Phillippines, and that this can change the use/perception of gender. Cheryl mentioned the French invasion of England, which brought in a lot of new words, but didn't re-gender-ize the nouns (excuse my creative grammar, Cheryl!). It is very hard to eradicate a language, unless you eradicate all the people who are using it (which can be done, sadly). Kyle mentioned that after the French invasion of England, French was used as the language of the court - and the courts! - so that it wasn't until the reign of Edward II that English was reinstated in the courts so the accused could understand what was going on. Latin was maintained as the language of the Church for hundreds of years. Other languages have gone underground, such as Gaelic, Korean during WWII under Japanese occupation, or Bulgarian during the Ottoman invasion (thanks for adding that one, Harry!).

Some languages have different dialects in which gender is assigned differently. Kyle mentioned different dialects of ancient Greek. Dialects emerge over time as language use is isolated in an area, and all kinds of changes can potentially emerge.

We returned to the question of gender by talking about Japanese women's language. Though women in Japan don't use "their own language," the style in which they speak is very distinct from the style in which men typically speak. My husband, who learned for years from female teachers, was once told by a friend that he had to "stop talking like a girl." Women tend to speak more formally using honorifics, verb endings, choices of more formal vocabulary, and using different emotive particles on the ends of sentences (these indicate if you're exclaiming, questioning, etc.).

There are also gendered variations of English usage, as Kyle mentioned (this isn't just for languages in faraway lands!). Generally in English the use of qualifiers and indirect approaches is considered more female, and the use of more direct approaches is considered male. There is also a female style many of you may recognize in which statements are delivered with the intonation of questions (i.e. going up at the end). There are internet metrics available now which claim to be able to tell whether a writer is male or female, but Cheryl told us those tend to pick her academic writing as 90% male, and her fiction as 90% female, so there's obviously something else going on besides gender!

Finally we attacked the question of what this all means for worldbuilding. Gender has a deep influence on any people's unconscious view of the world and on the way they speak - so it should do the same for the worlds you create. Harry suggested people could use a special Bulgarian style of insult, where someone will use the wrong gender for a person, and then when they get called on it, deflect by claiming that they were talking about a gendered object nearby. (I'd never heard of that one, and we all loved it!) If you're working with aliens, you can consider animal gender behaviors and assign language use based on them. Avian aliens might have variations in plumage and singing style based on gender. It's always fun to challenge or change gender expectations. A seahorse alien would probably assign male gender to a pregnant human (and misunderstanding and/or hijinks might ensue!).

It's important also to keep in mind that gender is not simple or exclusively bimodal, even in our own world. Some harrier hawks are born with female plumage and engage in female behaviors. Gender is all over our DNA, and resides as much in our brains as it does in our bodies, physically. It is also surrounded by elaborate patterns of cultural behavior, and the two intertwine.

I mentioned that I have a friend in the Netherlands who does speech therapy, and during one of our visits she told us she had a transgendered client who was getting her help to learn how to speak in a feminine way. That if nothing else should tell us that gender has an enormous influence on language use, and that this influence is cultural rather than physical. Cheryl recommended an interesting link about how to speak androgynously.

This is a never-ending topic, but that was where our discussion closed. Today at 11am we'll be talking about colonialism and imperialism, so I hope you'll join us!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Back to Worldbuilding Hangouts!

Well, I'm back from my trip and I'm going to be resuming worldbuilding hangouts this week. This Wednesday we'll be talking about Imperialism and Colonialism. The hangout will take place at 11am PDT on Google Plus. I hope to see you there!

Cultural views of "attractiveness" change

I ran across a couple of cool links today I thought I'd share. One is this link, which shows old weight gain ads - I mean, after all, you wouldn't want to be too skinny or you wouldn't get any dates! Another great one is this one, from Jamie Todd Rubin, discussing the ads that appear in the 1940's Astounding magazines. Not only weight but tobacco and many other things were seen differently, and it's very evident in the advertisements he shares. Check it out!

TTYU Retro: How and where to begin a story

How and where to begin a story is always - always - a hard question. I have gone back and changed the beginning for nearly every story I've written. In some cases, I have changed the beginning multiple times over the course of revision. It's enough to make one go batty!

The fact is, while there is no absolute rule, a story generally should begin with:
  • the main conflict, or some event that is a direct tributary of the main conflict
  • the main character
This may sound simple, but there's more to it than that.

I put the main conflict first because the main conflict is what drives the story forward, and sometimes the main conflict does not start in the same place that the main character does. Often in works where a murder mystery occurs and where the antagonist is mysterious, the book will start with a segment from the antagonist's point of view. This establishes the stakes, i.e. why exactly it is that a reader should care about what the main character is going to try to accomplish. Thus, when we get to the point where we're seeing the main character - likely doing something far more innocuous - we already get a sense of danger, anticipation, and most importantly, curiosity about what happens next. When, as in Janice Hardy's The Shifter, the character has a secret and her safety depends on nobody finding out about it, it makes perfect sense for the story to begin with a scene that results in this secret being discovered. That's what I would call a tributary scene, where the scene has its own natural stakes and drive, but delivers us into a place where the main conflict has clearly begun. For my current work in progress, the opening scene is one that shows the main character in a situation where it is important for him to pay attention to how he and his reputation are perceived by others, and then shows him being driven step by step off his comfortable ordinary concerns into a place of extreme danger, not because of the antagonist, but because of a contagious disease and the fear that the disease causes in people around him. The disease then becomes a driver that leads to a second major change, the death of the Eminence, that propels the story toward its conclusion.

I'll return in a second to the issue of "being driven step by step off his comfortable ordinary concerns," but before I do that I want to address the question of backstory.

I often feel like choosing an opening scene for a story is like trying to create a see-saw. You have a big piece of story (it might even be your protagonist's whole life!) and you have to balance it on that opening scene. The part that chronologically precedes the opening scene is the backstory; the part that follows is the story. My rule of thumb is this:

Any piece of backstory that contributes directly to the identity of the protagonist, his/her culture, his/her self-awareness, and his/her basis for decision making can be portrayed indirectly through the protagonist's actions, and thus need not be included in the main story.

You may have noticed that I've arrived at "the main character" here.

Point of view is my ultimate ally in this. I think about it in the following terms: we judge our experiences and choose our actions on the basis of our personality and experience; thus, aspects of personality and experience can be included at points where our protagonist judges events, and chooses to act.

Here's an example from For Love, For Power of me doing the backstory thing with character judgment. Tagret (my main character) is going to a concert in the ballroom and one of his friends tells him that a new Cabinet member will be announced at the event, and that it might be Tagret's father. Here's how Tagret responds:

"It wouldn't matter," Tagret said. "My father wouldn't risk coming all the way back across the continent just for a Cabinet seat. He's too happy ruling Selimna where nobody can reach him." No Father meant none of Father's nasty surprises, and it would be preferable to keep him there, except that his last and worst surprise had been taking Mother with him.

The fact that Tagret's parents have been gone in a place so far that they can't come back to visit, that he hates his father and loves his mother, and that his father is important enough to consider a Cabinet seat not worth his while - all of these are important pieces of information for understanding the story as it continues. They are relevant here not because Tagret stops out of his ordinary concerns to muse on them, but because he's using them as a basis for his evaluation of the ongoing talk, and his response.

The fact is that an opening scene is strongest when it's a point of convergence. It shows conflict, it shows character, and it shows world (you didn't think I'd forget world, did you?) all at once in an active and engaged way. At the beginning of the story, a reader needs to be grounded in all three.

Grounding is absolutely critical in an opening scene. This is the word I give to basic reader orientation. The reader needs to be oriented - in some way - to the who, what, and where of the story. These elements can be presented in different sorts of balance, as when our protagonist is feeling disoriented and not knowing where he/she is, but they are very important. Imagine the main character as a runner, and you're about to be tied to that runner with a rope so you can follow along at (possibly breakneck) speed for the entire story. If you are going to be able to do this, you have to have your feet on the ground. Otherwise the runner will end up dragging you, spinning and yelling, until you manage to untie yourself and get away.

This is why starting in the middle of extreme action is not a good idea. Everett Maroon had a good post on this issue, here. In your opening scene, your main character should be doing something that requires him/her to indicate to readers who he/she is and what his/her normal concerns are. Until "normal" is established, the abnormal will have no meaning. Even if your character is disoriented, he/she can still try to make sense of what is going on around him/her in terms of what would be normal under ordinary circumstances.

Similarly, starting with simple introspection or gazing out at views is not a good idea either. It's not just that you've omitted the conflict. It's also that you've shackled yourself in terms of backstory and world. It's not only that people don't sit down and contemplate the basic normal conditions of their lives for no reason. It's that backstory and world belong in the background, and if there is nothing going on, they will necessarily take the front seat. By starting with your main character in a situation of conflict that leads directly to the main conflict of the story, you do several things:
  1. You give your main character an opportunity to introduce him/herself through action and judgment
  2. You give your main character the opportunity to introduce his/her world through action and judgment
  3. You orient readers and establish where the story will be going next
  4. You place the drive (the hook!) of the story front and center so readers can catch hold
As you consider where to place your opening scene, think of the two basic criteria of main conflict and main character - but if it's not obvious where that scene needs to happen, think through the more detailed questions. Ask yourself:
  • in what context could the main character best demonstrate his/her core motivations, possibly through indirect reference to backstory?
  • in what location the main character could best portray the conditions of his/her world that have the greatest bearing on the story as it goes forward?
  • in what situation would the significance of the main conflict to this character become most evident?
Once you've arrived at an answer, don't figure it's the answer. Be aware that it's perfectly okay to start in the wrong place - if I didn't realize that, I would never finish anything. In the first draft, the most important thing is to find a point of entry where the story starts telling itself to you. Then you can go back later and refine the placement of that scene so it does the most for the story as a whole. After all, sometimes you don't know where the story is going until you've finished it. And since a major point of an opening scene is to show, or foreshadow, where the story is going, you'll be able to place it a lot better if you actually know where the story is going!

Dive in and go for it. These are just a few things for you to think about as you prepare to do so.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Secondary characters can add dimension and tension

Sometimes I come into a scene that I've really been looking forward to, and then I discover that it's not really popping the way I want it to. This happened to me the other day with a scene where my protagonist, Tagret, is reunited with his best friend Reyn after they've both been deathly ill. Honestly, I really had been looking forward to the scene - in part because I wondered what would come out of it, whether they would be closer as a result of their ordeal, or further apart. But when I got there and started writing it, it started feeling like some generic scene of reunion.

Generic is not allowed in my book.

It was at that point that I realized I hadn't been thinking through the surrounding context enough. By that I mean that it's always valuable to consider not only the situation at hand (in this case the reunion), but what surrounds it. It can sometimes be easy to think only about our point-of-view protagonist, and not so much of the others he or she interacts with. In my case, I hadn't really thought through how Reyn would be feeling, and what role would be played by the fact that a mutual friend of theirs contracted the same illness and died of it.

So I came up with two ideas that completely change the feel of the conversation:

1. Reyn lives without either of his parents (he's held back by law from accompanying them where they are working now), and has realized that he doesn't want to die without seeing them again. He has decided that as soon as the law allows, he will move to their city to live with them. This changes the conversation significantly, because instead of "wow, we're together again and we're both alive" all of a sudden it was "wow, we're both alive but you should know I'm going to skip town as soon as I can." The tension level is going to go way up as a result of this, and tension is generally good for story drive.

2. Reyn isn't just going to be thinking he needs to leave town, but he's going to be telling Tagret (as opposed to thinking it but not telling him) in part because he's feeling survivor guilt. He feels terrible that their mutual friend has died and isn't sure that he deserves to be alive and part of this friendship when their friend cannot be. This gives him an added layer of motivation, and gives the conversation somewhere far more interesting to go when Tagret gets upset about Reyn's declarations that he wants to leave.

Lucky for me, this also fits beautifully with the next piece of the chapter where they'll be interacting with the one friend of theirs who was untouched by the disease - I now have a lot of great ideas about both Reyn and Tagret, their psychological states and how they'll feel about seeing their friend who got lucky and didn't have to suffer.

What does this mean for you?

Well, it means that if you find yourself entering a piece of interaction between characters, and it doesn't seem to have as much punch as it could, try reversing your point of view for a while. See if the non-POV character doesn't have something really interesting on his or her mind that could take the whole interaction in a different, more fruitful direction. Not only will it help to raise tension locally, but if you take it seriously (i.e. don't just stick it in for one scene and then forget about it later), it can make your secondary character much more three-dimensional and interesting. It will also combat that feeling that readers sometimes get, that they are listening to a conversation that is "getting stuff done" for the author but not really progressing with natural realism.

This change that I am making is not going to change any major plot points, but it will change the whole feel of the story going forward, and make Tagret's motivations far more interesting and subtle as he heads into the rest of the "stuff he has to do." So as you work, don't just make the conversation go the way it has to to get the plot from point A to point B. Think of the hidden context, and do more.

It's something to think about.

A blind man sees

This is an amazing link. A man who was always blind describes what it is like to see for the first time.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

On Anne McCaffrey and Genre Borderlines

I was deeply saddened today to hear of the passing of Anne McCaffrey. I first discovered her work because, as a child, I had a propensity to pick up from the library or bookstore any book I found featuring the keyword "dragon" in the title. ("Magic" was also a strong indicator that I would like a book.) The first one I ever read was actually Dragonsinger, and I think it was the combination of the word "dragon" and the enticing illustration of a girl surrounded by miniature dragons that first drew me in.

Perhaps because I had dragons and fantasy on my mind, for many years I figured that McCaffrey's world was one of fantasy. It bore some key similarities - low technology living and societal structure being two examples - to prototypical fantasy worlds. However, because I loved the books so much, I continued to read on and on, and as those of you who have done the same will know, I eventually discovered that Pern was not a fantasy world after all. It was a science fictional world. In fact, it wasn't until this year that I realized Dragonflight had first been published in Analog!

Over the years I've spent getting to know the science fiction and fantasy-writing community as an author, I've realized that the borderlines between genres are both highly contested and relatively fluid. They follow the pattern of most categories that we identify: that is, there are some works that are considered prototypically one or the other, but in fact each genre is characterized by a number of features. The number of features possessed by any given work can vary, but only a very few are strong "genre-breakers," and even these - like dragons - can be fit into a different scheme if we pay close attention to the features that surround them.

When we read, we draw conclusions based on either the presence of a thing, or its absence (like, say, electricity). The easiest world models to grasp are the ones that fit with our existing expectations of the world, where the presence of one aspect of our technological life, or our social life, will automatically imply the rest. Those world models are the prototypes, that fall smack in the center of what we imagine fantasy or science fiction to be. The ones I've always admired most, however, are the ones where our expectations are defeated in one way or another. Books where every aspect of the world fits seamlessly with the rest, but in a configuration that does not conform to our expectations.

This was the kind of world I imagined when I first set out to create Varin. And while I take Ursula LeGuin's worlds as models I want to emulate, I think that the stamp of Anne McCaffrey on my fundamental concepts is unmistakable. Both Pern and Varin are worlds where technology has gone into decline (though Varin's technology level hasn't fallen nearly as far as Pern's). Both are worlds where certain phenomena appear to be magical, since though they are central to the people's lives, they aren't deeply understood. Both are worlds where societal structure has taken on an archaic feel for locally important reasons. And both, as a result, have one foot in fantasy and the other in science fiction.

I am grateful to Anne McCaffrey for what her books have taught me - personally as well as in my writing. I can only hope that what I create will live up to the example she has shown. And I hope also that all of us will take inspiration from her vision, which crossed over genre borderlines and created an enduring world that felt alive, and at the same time was constantly surprising.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Hard Choices Require Consequences

One of the most compelling things you can encounter in a story (either short or long) is a hard choice. The character gets to a certain point in the story and has to decide whether to take this path or that one, whether to hurt someone by doing one thing or hurt another person by doing something else. I don't know about you, but when I sense a hard choice coming it engages me wonderfully. Oh, my goodness, look at the conflict that is going to come out of that!

This is good. However, the big risk with setting up a hard choice is that you have to follow through.

I've read a number of books recently that involved hard choices, and at least two of them have let me down. The author has gotten me deeply engaged in the question of what choice will be made, and what the consequences of that choice might be... and then suddenly changed the game. Either the choice became unnecessary, suddenly, or the protagonist decided she was going to have her cake and eat it too, and for some reason that was okay with everybody.

I found this very disappointing, but when I think about it now, I wonder to myself why it is that I feel so disappointed. Why shouldn't I be happy that this horror for the protagonist isn't going to take place? Why shouldn't I be pleased that in the end, everything is going to work out?

In part it may be because this feels to me like what Janice Hardy calls "nice writer syndrome," where an author isn't hard enough on his/her characters and the story has less impact as a result. It's important to remember that one of the reasons we care about a character is because that character might have something bad happen to him or her. If there are no consequences, it's easy to think that the character's choices simply don't matter. As you can imagine, Janice herself doesn't suffer from this! (Just read The Shifter and all will become clear...)

The other part of it, I think, is the sneaking suspicion that the author might be playing with us as readers. That we're being led to anticipate an enormous consequence, getting worked up with excitement at the prospect, and then told that it really wasn't important anyway. The only way I think one could get away with this as an author would be by leaving so much evidence through the story that there was another way out of the situation, that when readers finally got there the whole thing would click together and we'd say "why didn't I see that option before?"

I realized just recently that I'd set up a big choice in For Love, For Power. Unlike in the last novel I wrote, the choice isn't central to the climax of the book (does she go into the magical world or not?); in this case it has to do with the relationships that happen between the characters. I hadn't really thought through it until recently, but I'm realizing that readers will think Tagret has to choose between his relationship with Reyn and his relationship with Della. If I defuse that question too early, say by having Reyn lose interest, or (God forbid) die, then I'm not taking advantage of all the potential conflicts that my book offers. I think of it as an opportunity that I'm happy not to have lost through lack of attention. Once I started thinking about it as a hard choice, then I realized some changes that could happen in later chapters of the book that would really make things fraught with tension, conflict, and doubt. Since tension, conflict, and doubt all increase the amplitude of the story's impact, I'm definitely going to head in the direction of facing the choice rather than defusing it. There have to be potentially bad consequences either way the choice goes, because a choice that is too obviously good on one side and bad on the other really isn't a choice at all.

What choices do your characters have to make? What kind of consequences do they entail?

It's something to think about.




Thursday, November 17, 2011

Aligning characters ambiguously (remember The Princess Bride?)

I'm a sucker for ambiguously aligned characters. Good guys who turn into bad guys, bad guys who turn out to be good guys, those folks are just plain fun. I write stories with this kind of character all the time, but I was reminded of them recently when my kids and I watched The Princess Bride.

I'm sure most of you are dearly familiar with Inigo and Fezzik. During our first viewing I became fascinated by the fact that these two characters are immediately likeable despite the fact that they've just kidnapped the princess along with Vizzini. So during our second and third viewings (since people, especially children, like to see fabulous things more than once) I took a look at our introduction to these two characters.

Basically, after our first view of them which involves them knocking out Buttercup, we immediately shift, not to her point of view of them on the ship, but to their own internal squabbles. Inigo demonstrates curiosity about what exactly they are doing ("what is that you are ripping?"), showing that he's not entirely aware of their mission. Then when Vizzini describes the basics of of his plan to frame Guilder by killing Buttercup and leaving her on the frontier, Fezzik reveals that he wasn't totally in on the plan either, and that he has morals well-aligned with our own ("I just don't think it's right, killing an innocent girl."). We then get an opportunity to witness Vizzini's cruelty applied to his own accomplices as he dresses them down.

This is a good start, but on its own, I don't think it would be enough to convince me that Inigo and Fezzik were anything more than weak bad guys, or at a stretch, decent guys forced into nefarious deeds by circumstance. The point where I really start liking them is when I see Fezzik clearly have hurt feelings as a result of Vizzini's tirade, and then Inigo comes over to him and starts deliberately consoling him by starting the rhyming game. At this point, these two characters are no longer simply henchmen who do their boss' bidding. They are actual people, friends in fact, who care about each other and also have a sense of humor... a sense of humor which they are entirely willing to use at Vizzini's expense ("Anybody want a peanut?"). This pattern is then confirmed as we go forward into Vizzini's mercilessness and Fezzik's inability to use his considerable power (the fact that he's literally dangling Vizzini over a cliff) to win an argument. It continues into Inigo and Fezzik's interactions with the Man in Black, where we are also given glimpses into the backstory of each character. In fact I don't think that it would be nearly as difficult to guess the identity of the Man in Black if we immediately concluded he had to be a "good guy" because Fezzik and Inigo were "bad guys."

I think there are some good lessons to be learned here about what it is that makes a character likeable. Readers and viewers collect evidence in a character's interactions which they use to establish that character's qualities and alignments. Clearly even criminal behavior (kidnapping) can be quickly outweighed by evidence of reluctance and human caring. It's good to remember this if you're creating ambiguously aligned characters, and even if you have a protagonist who has to do bad things. We don't blame Janice Hardy's Nya for stealing, because she's stealing eggs when she could potentially choose to steal something much worse, and then only because she's starving. Her human qualities come to the fore much more quickly.

What do your characters do to show us that they are human? Does it make them seem more complex? Does it make them likeable?

It's something to think about.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gender: A Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout Report

So finally here I am to report on the Gender hangout, which took place on November 2. Cheryl Morgan, Dale Emery, and Kyle Aisteach came to talk with me and we had a terrific discussion; Harry Markov joined in for a few minutes at the end.

We started out by taking about one of the classic SF/F tales about gender, Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. I've heard people characterize this book as too preachy, but I've never found it so. It's always seemed to me more of a thorough thought experiment, and my fellow discussants felt that it reflected some of the social issues at the time that it was written (1969, and I agree). Briefly, the people of LeGuin's planet Gethen have no gender unless they are in their four-day-a-month sexually receptive phase, when they may take one gender or the other depending on the circumstances. LeGuin approaches this in a very interesting way, too, both giving the outsider's scientific (and thus explanatory) viewpoint and local tales of human interaction that introduce us to the social rules of Gethenian societies from an insider's viewpoint.

The question of gender in stories isn't just about stories that focus on gender questions, however. There are tons of gender issues in all kinds of stories which are ostensibly "about" other things. I had a fascinating discussion with author Myke Cole about his upcoming novel, and he was thinking deeply about his portrayal of women, so that the context of a military plot wouldn't make them come out as men with women's names (I'm very curious to see his book; it's about the modern military with magic-users, and sounds fascinating). Kyle mentioned the question of female characters in video games. One game he mentioned portrays women as pilots "without much character," and he said he'd heard divided opinions on this portrayal - one friend who said the characters weren't feminine enough, and another who was happy to see them "not turned into the typical woman." Cheryl noted that in video games you also get the issue of gender change. Some games, like Mass Effect, allow particular characters to be either male or female, which changes the nature of the social interactions they engage in (including romantic liaisons that then can be either hetero- or homosexual depending on the gender chosen for the characters in question).

We talked a little about stories in which people change genders. Cheryl mentioned Steel Beach by John Varley, in which gender reassignment is very easy. Dale mentioned the film Orlando; there was also My Brother's Keeper, in which a monk receives a visitation from an angel, and apparently later changes gender. There are also stories where genderless characters are interpreted to have different genders by different people (or the reader). Kelley Eskridge's Dangerous Space was mentioned, as was John Scalzi's The Android's Dream, and apparently Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series takes gender as a prominent secondary theme.

One thing that is very interesting to do as a writer (which many authors are already doing to great effect) is to engage with the question of gender from the angle of deliberately altering the social contracts that surround gender. That is, taking our current expectations of behavior that is masculine or feminine, and turning those expectations on their heads. Another is to engage in a world where many of the same gender issues occur that currently occur in our world, and then bring attention to them so that our subconscious acceptance of behaviors can be questioned.

It is very difficult to tease apart which aspects of gender are societal, and which are genetic.

Kyle told us of a friend who had written a story and then went through and switched the genders of all the characters. This is a very interesting experiment to try, because you will discover that changing the gender of a character has an enormous effect on a reader's (and our own) expectations for them. If you do this, you may decide that you would prefer to change a character's actions in one scene so they become less stereotypical. I myself recently changed the gender of a minor character in the story I'm writing because I felt that putting a woman in that position was too stereotypical: the woman was complaining about being asked not to take a dress fastened by magnets onto the planet (where there is a magnet prohibition), and declared she wasn't going to undress in front of a thousand people. When I changed the character to a man and the dress into a bodysuit, the entire interaction felt much fresher and less clich├ęd.

Whenever you are working with oppressed characters, it's important to realize that these characters aren't necessarily weak. They may have few areas in which they can exercise power, but they will most likely have a finely tuned sense of how to use that power to their own advantage. If a woman's only power is to choose a husband, she'll choose very carefully!

Kyle made the interesting observation that comedy about women with power used to be far more common than it is now. He gave the examples of Vaudeville and the television show "Bewitched." Cheryl mentioned a show with advertising men and dumb women in charge. Kyle also pointed out that "Mr. Mom" was a comedy, but that men who care for children at home are so much more common now that making a whole comedy about it would seem strange.  (Comedy generally flirts with borderlines of unacceptability in one way or another; things that make people uncomfortable. If women with power ever become entirely normal, the impetus for comedy will have to shift somewhere else.)

Society is not uniform in its expectations of gender behavior. Different cultures see the role of women and men differently, and even see the divide between them differently. If we start looking into the behavior of other animal species, the expectations differ even more widely. Lions have specific gender-related roles related to hunting, dominance, etc. Spiders have even more dramatically different gender behaviors (human women are not likely to bite their husbands' head off literally!). Raccoons follow a pattern where the females with young drive the males off, and the males live in group homes separately from the mothers. Pronghorn antelopes tend to divide into herds of all males and all females, but some males run with the females. Every animal species which has been studied for gender relations exhibits some homosexual behaviors, and some pairs form stable families, as for example pairs of female albatrosses.

When we write portrayals of gender orientation behavior, it's important to think through how readers will see what we portray. By this I mean that we should pay close attention to whether we are giving value judgment messages. When I was first designing For Love, For Power, I knew that my antagonist, who is a sociopath, was going to have a homosexual relationship during the story, and so I realized that I needed to be careful to have my protagonist's side of the story portray homosexual relationships between non-sociopaths, or I'd accidentally be seen as delivering the message that all homosexuals are sociopaths. When I spoke about it as having a "grid," Kyle immediately picked up on this and explained to us that people who write for TV shows literally have grids they fill out so that they can make sure to have characters with different racial, gender-related, and behavioral characteristics. The danger of this, of course, is that viewers or readers may be able to detect the grid you were working with (ex. "We have the homosexual crazy guy, so we need a heterosexual crazy guy, and then a homosexual sane guy, and a heterosexual sane guy, oh, and there should be women too, which boxes do we need to fill in for them?"). It's worth taking the time to make sure you're developing the details of each character and making each person "fill in his/her box" in a way that is subtly grounded in character and backstory, rather than just setting up cardboard box-fillers.

Stereotypes exist for a reason. First of all, it's vitally important for human survival that we be able to create categories out of things that may only vaguely resemble one another - if we couldn't recognize an apple because it was the wrong color or shape, we'd go hungry, and if we couldn't recognize a lion because it was a bit too small, we'd get eaten. Second of all, behavioral trends exist, and gender characteristics tend to pattern in predictable ways. For each category we create, there is the stereotype at the dead center, and a range of core/prototypical group members around it (which vary to some degree), and then further out there is a wide variety of less typical group members and individuals whose group membership is ambiguous. It's good to keep this in mind whenever we work with categories in our worldbuilding.

Dale mentioned that he has been working with a small breakaway community where gender roles differ because of the need to increase the population. Demographic pressures can have varying effects on the social roles expected of different genders. In his world, these pressures lead to a greater degree of gender equality, while in my own, similar pressures result in extreme oppression of women. What is happening in the worlds you are designing?

In amidst our discussion, Dale perceptively pointed out a pattern he's observed in some classic works of science fiction, including Asimov's Foundation and Empire and Robot stories: Men were referred to by last name, while women and robots were referred to by first names. The simplest explanation for this is that there is a subconscious perception of both women and robots as those who serve men - at very least, the pattern suggests that robots and women pattern together in social estimation, while men pattern differently.

At the end of the discussion Dale asked me if there was anything I had to say about gender in language. I nearly burst out laughing, because I have nearly an endless amount of stuff to say about gender in language... so we decided on that as the topic for the next hangout. That hangout took place last week, November 9, and I'll be writing that one up as soon as I can.

Thanks again to Cheryl, Kyle, Dale, and Harry for coming to speak with me. It was a wonderful chat. Since I'm writing this up late, please do feel free to comment with anything I may have forgotten!


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Worldbuilding hangout postponed to Nov. 30

Life has attacked! I think it must be the lead-in to the holidays.

The blog will continue as usual...

And I'm still planning to hold a hangout where we discuss Colonialism/Imperialism...

but the hangout can't be this week, or the week of Thanksgiving. So I'm moving the Colonialism/ Imperialism discussion to Wednesday November 30th (sorry everyone). In the meantime I'll try to catch up on the reports of the last two discussions, and get on top of my writing, which means getting a story out the door to submission, and getting stuck into a new chapter.


Monday, November 14, 2011

A checklist for deep POV (in 1st or 3rd person!)

Have you ever wondered what "deep point of view" is, or thought you might like to try to achieve it?  Essentially, deep point of view means feeling "close" to the narrator in a story. It's a question of narrative distance: instead of being a distant storyteller aware of the story being told, the deep narrator feels as close to the protagonist and her/his instinct and gut reactions as possible. Since I've always loved feeling like I am experiencing the story in a visceral way alongside my protagonists, I've spent a number of years developing techniques for deep POV, trying to push closer and closer. The first article I ever wrote on point of view appeared in 2006 for the Internet Review of Science Fiction: "Point of View: Reading Beyond the I's." Since I've seen people discussing the question of deep POV again lately, I thought I'd put together a checklist of things you can do in order to create it.

I think the most important thing to keep in mind as you enter the task of creating deep POV is this: deep point of view is not created by personal pronouns. It has almost nothing to do with whether you are using first person or third person - you can make third person feel close or first person feel distant if you really try. Any text contains lots and lots of different opportunities to get closer or further away from your narrating character, and the more "close" opportunities you take, the closer your narrator will feel. The list below will give you a sense of where to look for these opportunities. Please do keep in mind that none of these are "rules," and you do not have to do all of them.

I'm going to go through each point of the checklist in detail first, and then repeat it at the end as a summary so you can run through it more easily. (So if you want to get the overview first, you can skip down to the end now and then come back.)

Here we go:

1. avoid overuse of personal pronouns
Personal pronouns are the ones people always ask about first when they talk about point of view. Usually they're either "I" (first person) or "he" or "she" (third person) but sometimes can be "you" (second person). Just because you've chosen one or the other of them does not mean that every sentence, or even every other sentence, should start with one. As a guideline for where you should use these pronouns and where you should not use them, think about dividing your character's narrative into action, perception, and judgment. Action sentences are the ones where your character is doing something, and those are the ones which will use personal pronouns. Perception sentences are the ones where your character is remarking on something that he/she perceives (sees, hears, smells, feels, etc.), and those should not use personal pronouns. Judgment sentences are the ones where your character is expressing an opinion about something that's happening, and those shouldn't usually use personal pronouns either. Chances are, if you're using personal pronouns for perception or judgment, then you're filtering.

2. avoid filtering
Filtering means putting extra words into your sentence that remove the reader from the experience of the character. When you go through your life you probably don't think distantly about what you're perceiving. You hear a car horn and you don't think, "I'm hearing a car horn." You think, "Hey, that's a car horn!" The filtering words in this case are "I'm hearing." Anything that describes the narrator's thought or mode of perception "I heard," "I saw," "I felt," etc. should be considered a filter between the reader and the character's experience. Expressing opinions is similar. You don't think to yourself, "I think that slime is disgusting." You think, "Eww, that's disgusting!" In a way, by writing down "I thought," or other filter words, you're reminding readers of the character's presence, drawing attention to the fact that he/she is a character in a book they're reading. If you do this as little as possible, your point of view will feel deeper.  

3. use internalization
I'm going to pick up here on what I said in #2 above about what one thinks to oneself. Your character is going through the story, acting on the basis of what happens to him or her. In deep point of view you're trying to create the sensation that your reader is deep in the character's head, and that means listening directly to the character's thoughts - most often, right as they are having them. If you try to think of everything in deep point of view as internal in some way, then all description becomes perception. I'll come back to this below, because I'll be looking at a lot of tools to make description feel internal. My point here is that only what the character perceives should be described. Then, once something has been perceived (the character sees a rose; the character gets stabbed, etc.), then the character will have an emotional reaction, possibly one which evokes memories of backstory. After that, the character will form a motivation to respond and then he/she will respond.

Now I'm going to move into some more detailed techniques that involve specific grammar, and will contribute to the success of the first three above.

4. use deixis, or pointing words
When you move through life, you spend a lot of time pointing, both physically and verbally. Which one do you want? That one. Whose is that? Mine. Your character should be doing this, too. The trick to remember as a writer is that all pointing words indicate a "center" where the speaker is standing. Remember when the teacher called your name in class? You answered, "Here!" The word "here" points to the center; it points to yourself. In your narrative, the pointing words should all indicate your point of view character as the center. It's not actually very hard to make pointing words point to the character as the center in the case of dialogue, but it's much harder to remember to pay attention to the pointing words in general narrative. Every time you write "the night before" instead of "last night," you're taking a step away from your character's deep perspective. It's very easy to make pointing words in narrative point to you, as author, without even thinking about it. But in deep point of view, you don't want anything pointing outside the character. That character isn't aware that he/she is in a story, and thus you don't want author-centered pointing to remind readers that the author is still there. Here's a list of some kinds of pointing words that you can look out for (it's not an exhaustive list, so make sure to keep your eye out!).
  • demonstratives this and that (especially this)
Example: "This was what he'd been looking for." 
  • adverbs here and there (especially here)
Example: "He walked into the lab. Here was where it had all happened."
  • adverbs now, soon, today, tomorrow, last night
 Example: "Last night it had seemed only a memory, but now it loomed ahead of him."
  • verbs come, go
 Example: "The thing was coming closer."

    5. use syntax
    This one is directly related to the question of the character's action as I mentioned above. A character's action is anything from "He held perfectly still" to "She grabbed the knife and dived over the edge of the platform." I like to think of it as things the point of view character does which involve intent. Even things like "She looked at him" and "He didn't move" can be deliberate actions on the part of the protagonist. Mind you, they could be external too - they are open to either interpretation - but if everything around them is indicating an internal point of view, then these will be read as internal as well. The guidelines below basically are saying that you want to indicate that your deep point of view character is in charge of her/his own action by placing her/him in the subject position of the main clause of the sentence as much as possible.
    • place the protagonist (or the protagonist's group) in subject position
    Example: "She reached for him." "They walked together into her room."
    • avoid placing the protagonist in object or other syntactic position
    Example: "He reached for her." (if used too much, can sound like "he" is the protagonist)
    • avoid placing the protagonist in a subordinate clause for action
    Example: "As she walked in, the door swung shut." (puts emphasis on the door's action)
    • use empty subject constructions to convey judgment
    Example: "It was ridiculous to think anyone would actually follow him."
    I'm going to explain this one a little bit. Notice that my protagonist, "she" is not present in this sentence. That's because we're not looking at an action sentence. This is a judgment sentence, and thus, if I said "She thought it was ridiculous..." then putting her as the subject would create filtering, not a sense of action. We often use the empty "It is"/"It was" with judgmental adjectives to think about situations in our experience, so I encourage you to do this for deep POV.
    • use bare verb+preposition combinations
    Example: "He walked up."
    This one is related to my point above about not putting the protagonist in object position. If I wrote out the whole situation, "He walked up to her," then she would appear in a non-subject position. If I leave "to her" off, then I find it seems more like what someone would think internally.

    One last note of caution on syntax: when I say to avoid something, I'm not telling you you can't put your protagonist in these syntactic positions. I'm only trying to say that the effect will be different if you do: the emphasis will seem to rest somewhere other than on the protagonist's intent to act. Sometimes this is what people are actually referring to when they say to avoid "passive" constructions. However, if that different effect is what you want (for example, if you want the protagonist to be perceived as victimized) then no problem.
      6. use adjectives, adverbs, and similes with judgmental connotations
      In deep point of view, what you're describing isn't what you're describing. It's what your character is perceiving, noticing, and judging. Anything your character doesn't perceive shouldn't even make it into the description (I'll come back to this in a second). Whenever you describe a scene or an object, think through how your character perceives it. Describing something as "red" feels very different from describing it as "dirty red" or "sparkling red." Saying someone moves "reluctantly" is a judgment by the person perceiving it. Maybe that person is only moving slowly for some other reason. A character will compare something he/she sees to familiar things - so what is familiar? If you say her hair is like silk, presumably you know what silk is like. If your character compares something to silk but is too poor ever to have encountered it, you're looking at author point of view, not character point of view. I have a longer article about this, here


      7. use evidential adverbs and modal verbs
      Whenever you can, it's important to create a sense of internal judgment - even in contexts where you wouldn't ordinarily expect to find it. Modal verbs and evidential adverbs can help you do this. I have a longer article about this, here, but here are some examples of how to use these.
      • can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would, have to
      These are the modal verbs, and each of them says something about the speaker's evaluation of the situation - likelihood, possibility, probability, will to accomplish something, etc. All of these are very subjective, and thus add a sense of internal evaluation to what is being said. For example, instead of writing "The ninja kicked him, but he quickly recovered from the blow," you could say, "The guy might be a ninja, but he couldn't kick hard enough to keep him down for long." And that brings me to...
      • apparently, evidently, of course, clearly, surely, no doubt, naturally, likely, etc.
      These adverbs indicate the protagonist's judgment of the sentence or proposition that follows, how likely or expected it is, and what they think of the source of the information. In fact, you'll hear a lot out there about how you should be avoiding adverbs altogether, but they can be extremely useful. In this article alone I've mentioned them now three times! Adverbs expressing time, adverbs expressing judgment of actions in description, and adverbs expressing the protagonist's judgment of information are all extremely helpful to creating deep point of view.

      8. use articles "a" and "the"
      I just wrote an article about this one last week, but I'm going to add to it here. "The" indicates known information. It is especially useful in indicating places or things that your protagonist is already familiar with. As such it's really useful when you want to create a sense of internal point of view, because you can use it to reflect your character's internal knowledge. Be careful not to use it to reflect your own (the author's) knowledge rather than the character's. "A" indicates new information. As such it's a really critical tool because "a" is the primary indicator of noticing. If your character uses "a" with something, that means he/she has noticed that thing. Watch out for this, especially if you're trying to get a message to your reader without having your character get the same message. For example, your character can walk into a room where there's a really important key (a clue, or something needed to advance the plot), and just see it as "a room full of junk" (in which case the reader won't know the key is there) or "a room full of junk like old books, keys, and stationery" (here the reader might be able to pick up that the key is there, especially if some other hint has caused them to look for it). Here's the trick: the minute the character says she sees a key, that means she's noticed it. It's then up to the author to decide whether to show how the character responds - whether she looks by without thinking it's important, or whether she goes, "hey, that's the key I was looking for!" 

      9. use voice
      Voice is a topic about which whole reams of information can be (and have been) written. What I'll say here is that if you're striving for a deep point of view that directly relates the inner thoughts of your protagonist, then those thoughts should reflect the way that character actually expresses him/herself. If this is a person who speaks a dialect, then the dialect should influence the internalization as well as the character's dialogue (though the internalization doesn't have to be quite as extreme as the dialogue). If this is a non-native speaker of English, find a way for the narrative and internalization to reflect that (as well as the person's level of proficiency in English, and level of education, so they don't sound needlessly stupid). If this is a person who swears, then that should show up in internalization. Whenever you can, consider whether your character's reaction would be worth expressing with direct thought exclamations. These are things like taking "He wondered if he could..." and turning it into "Could he...?", or taking "He wished..." and turning it into "If only...", or taking "She didn't want to..." and turning it into "No way would she..." or even "Damned if she was going to..." These can of course be overused, but they certainly will deepen the reader's sense of your point of view.


      So, now that we've discussed everything in detail, here is the summary checklist:


      1. avoid overuse of personal pronouns
      • Personal pronouns are for action with intent.
      • Try to avoid them for perception and judgment.
      2. avoid filtering

      3. use internalization
      • all description becomes perception.
      4. use deixis, or pointing words
      • demonstratives this and that (especially this)
      • adverbs here and there (especially here)
      • adverbs now, soon, today, tomorrow, last night 
      • verbs come, go
      5. use syntax
      • place the protagonist (or the protagonist's group) in subject position
      • avoid placing the protagonist in object or other syntactic position
      • avoid placing the protagonist in a subordinate clause for action
      • use empty subject constructions to convey judgment
      • use bare verb+preposition combinations
      6. use adjectives, adverbs, and similes with judgmental connotations

      7. use evidential adverbs and modal verbs
      • can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would, have to
      • apparently, evidently, of course, clearly, surely, no doubt, naturally, likely, etc.
      8. use articles "a" and "the"

      • "The" indicates known information.  
      • "a" is the primary indicator of noticing
      9. use voice
      • dialect
      • profanity/swearing style
      • "direct thought" exclamations (if only, no way, damned if)
      I hope you find it helpful in your own writing and editing.

      Wednesday, November 9, 2011

      Designing a dialect without changing spelling

      I'm sure most of you have read books where the author changed the spelling of words in order to express the pronunciation of a particular dialect. It used to be done all the time (Huckleberry Finn, A Little Princess etc.). Even now it can be done well, and even brilliantly (I think immediately of the dialects invented by Mike Flynn for The January Dancer and Up Jim River). However, if it isn't done right, it can be embarrassing, inconsistent or even incomprehensible.

      This is why I don't do it. I still do dialects, though, so this article is about how to make dialects sound different without actually changing spelling to reflect pronunciation.

      Fortunately, there is a lot more to dialect variation than pronunciation alone. There are also variations in pronoun usage, variations in syntax, variations in prosody (intonation and meter), variations in the use of the verb "be," and variations in vocabulary. Because I'm talking about writing in English, I'm going to stick to these - but it's good to be aware that in other languages, you can also have variation in other parameters (in Japanese, verb endings also vary by dialect!).

      So let's do these one at a time, with some concrete examples. Pronouns (I/you/he/she/they/etc.) are a wonderful tool. Any change you make in the way you use them will be highly visible, because they resist change rather wonderfully (it's extremely difficult to get a reader's mind to accept a new made-up pronoun unless it resembles an existing pronoun very closely).

      A great science fictional example of pronoun change comes from the work of Aliette de Bodard, who works with the Xuya Empire, a wonderful far-future version of the Chinese empire. In this universe, the Emperor is always referred to as "The Emperor ytself." I'm not sure about you, but the moment I see this I know that I'm looking at a genderless pronoun. There are two things working for me when I interpret this. One is that the pronoun would be pronounced just like the pronoun "itself." The second is that it has a very simple spelling change that tells my brain "look out!" This spelling change also leads me not to expect the default interpretation of "itself," i.e. that there is some kind of genderless object running the empire. There's a lot of mystery surrounding the person of the emperor here, but I don't immediately guess that the place is being run by some sort of machine.

      I decided to change pronouns when I was designing the undercaste dialect of Varin, but in a more extensive way. These people start using plural pronouns for each other as soon as they reach adulthood. Now, surely most of you are familiar with the pronoun "y'all" from the American south. When I first learned it I thought it was used as a plural form of "you." Interestingly, though, at least in some regions it is a singular.

      y'all = you (singular)
      all y'all = all of you (plural)

      This was a good thing, because I knew that the idea of pluralizing a pronoun wouldn't push people too far outside their comfort zones. However, I pluralized more than just the second person.

      I => we
      we => all-we
      you => ye
      you => all-ye
      he/she => they
      they => all-they

      The result is extreme, but comprehensible once you get the hang of it. I was trying to make sure I introduced it in a very comprehensible context, so the first line that contains one of these pronouns is this:

      "Give it to us, then."

      Perhaps you notice the similarity to existing English dialects from the UK? This was fortuitous, but I'm ready to use it to the hilt, and you should be too, so remember this: the dialect you create may well evoke existing Earth dialects, and if it resembles one that bears some social similarities (casualness, lower-class) to the group you are working with in your world, this will really help your readers to get the picture.

      Variations in syntax are cases when you change the order of words. For most of you, I'm guessing Yoda will leap to mind. He's weird (and possibly annoying) but he is comprehensible. One of his main strategies is to take the object of the sentence and promote it up to the front of the sentence, so that instead of Subject-verb-object, you get Object-subject-verb:

      Your father he is.

      Now, if you go in and start doing an analysis of everything Yoda says, you'll find he's not particularly systematic. However, when you're altering syntax for your dialect, I encourage you to be so. If you can stick to a particular pattern, then the learning and comprehension burden is reduced for your readers.

      I did my own syntactic alterations when I was designing the alien voice for "Cold Words" (Analog, Oct. 2009), and I've analyzed it here on the blog, so I'll direct you to that article if you want lots of details about how it was done. That was a case of rendering an alien language in English, so it had a lot of different feature changes! [An Introduction to Aurrel]

      Variations in prosody can be huge. This is intonation and stress, and all you have to do is choose words carefully and put them in a particular order to get it done. You don't have to change spellings, and you don't have to use special words. I have at least a couple of characters whose dialects are distinguished only by word and rhythmic patterning. Here is one example:

      Pelismara (standard) dialect:
      "You're all right now. How do you feel?"

      Safe Harbor sea level dialect:
      "Oh, young Master, sir, please tell us now you've not gone deaf or blind, and ease us all our worry?"

      I shouldn't forget to mention "be." This is a verb that does a lot of helping but isn't very heavy on content, so perhaps that's why it ends up changing so much. Some dialects of English don't conjugate it at all. "I be going..." "They be good people..." etc. Change your default language on Facebook to "Pirate" and see what happens! This means that not only are people accustomed to seeing the word "be" used in variable ways (and thus will tolerate your alterations more easily) but that using the unconjugated "be" gives a very particular flavor to the dialect you're creating. This can definitely work to your advantage.

      The next one to look at is changing vocabulary. In fact, if you're writing in another world, you're probably doing this already. Science fictional neologisms like viewport, commlink, etc. all would fall into this category, and so would created words for objects in fantasy worlds like "laran" psychic power in the Darkover world of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross. The thing to watch out for here is not to create so much new vocabulary that you're interfering with comprehension. SF neologisms have the advantage that very often they're pieces of existing words, like "mods" for modifications. However, if the context is not clear, they can also become confusing. One great thing you can do with vocabulary is create a sense of judgment and perspective. I've mentioned before that any object in a world will tend to be called different things by different people. A weapon used specifically by one group of people will tend to have the name of that group associated with it (in Varin, Arissen weapon or Imbati shot) - but only when being referred to by an outsider group. Arissen would never refer to their energy weapons as "Arissen weapons," because that wouldn't make any sense. They would have intimate knowledge of the variations in these weapons, and so would categorize them based on their function, as bolt shooters vs. arc zappers. Their familiarity with the types would show in the casualness of the terminology. We see similar things in our own world when we're looking at how laypeople versus clergy refer to objects having to do with the church, or how laypeople vs. medical practitioners refer to health issues.

      As you can see, changes in vocabulary can hint about attitudes and culture within the group that uses those words. The terms we choose will have flavor, so as you make these alterations, think through which flavor it is you want to impart to the dialogue. If you want to go even further, you can think about how the usage of a particular dialect reflects historical developments, or cultural developments, in the community you're working with (the undercaste plural pronouns have a cultural and historical motivator, for example).

      All this is just to say that if you restrict yourself from using spelling as a major tool in creating a dialect, you're really not "restricting" yourself much at all.

      Now, go forth and have fun creating dialects!

      Tuesday, November 8, 2011

      This week's Worldbuilding Hangout

      This week's worldbuilding hangout will be tomorrow, Wednesday November 9 at 11am PST. We will be talking about Gender in Language. Please come and join us on Google+! Basic prerequisite is a Google+ account, but with no microphone/no camera we can manage workarounds. I hope you will join us.

      Monday, November 7, 2011

      Tying the pieces of a chapter together

      Over this weekend I was struggling with a chapter of my novel - struggling in part because I haven't worked on it for several months, but also because it was one of those chapters that has two main sections. The point-of-view character interacts with a bunch of people in one location, and then for the second half of the chapter, goes to a different location and interacts with a totally different group of people. It's really hard to make a chapter like that seem like it's not just "one thing and then the other." It can be even harder when the sequence gets longer.

      You have to tie them all together.

      There is, of course, one really good way to have a sequence of events make sense. If one event causes the next, you're not likely to have trouble. I had Nekantor picking out a bodyguard with the help of his brother and his cousin in the first half of the scene, which allowed him to go safely to the next location in the chapter. But the bodyguard doesn't have anything to do with the fact that he's interviewing with the Eminence. She can't - she's irrelevant except as the means for him to get there. So he was coming out of his interview having accomplished the things he needed to accomplish, but the chapter was feeling like two floating scenes instead of a chapter.

      I found the link somewhere else.

      One of the things that comes up in the bodyguard interview is the question of betting. Members of the soldier/officer caste enjoy risk and the sense of courage, and betting lets them engage in that in addition to their natural duties. So while the three noble boys are interviewing bodyguard candidates, there's a (seemingly) random thread about betting running through the whole scene. In the end, Nekantor realizes that betting is one of the caste's weaknesses, and decides to use that to help make his decision of which bodyguard to pick. Then, later, I'd gotten to the end of the interview and he and his father were arguing with one another on the way home... and it hit me. Nekantor has just learned something about betting, so he can make a betting comment to his father [roughly, No matter what you say, I bet X amount he's going to vote for me.]. It might seem frivolous, but it works for a couple of reasons - one, because I'm picking up something at the end of the chapter that I was working with at the beginning, and two, because it demonstrates that the events at the beginning of the chapter have changed the way Nekantor thinks about things. He's not just "doing two things" in this chapter, but he's learned something that he can now carry forward (and with this offhand comment he's just demonstrated that he will do so).

      All of a sudden I had a smile on my face. I also knew that I had a better title for the chapter. I have written before about the usefulness of chapter titles (here). I find they help me express what I think the thematic content of the chapter is - and they also help readers see which elements are important in the chapter. Before I had managed to find this linking element between the two halves of the chapter, I'd named it after the person with whom Nekantor has his interview in the second half (making the first half seem peripheral or less relevant). Once I'd figured out that the betting was the linking factor, I decided to call it "A Better Bet."

      It's not always this hard to tie the pieces of a chapter or story sequence together. I've had plenty of chapters that title themselves, like "Master and Lady" where my servant character got closer and closer to seeing the true nature of the conflict between his mistress and her husband (over several different scenes). But there are times when you won't find the link between the smaller pieces of your chapter in the main driving content of each of the scenes. My primary point here is to say that you can look out for smaller repeating elements - for in my case, it was soldiers betting on a competition between the young noble boys in one section, and a young noble boy betting on that same competition in the second section. You'd be surprised what a difference it makes to the sense of cohesion and continuity within the story.

      It's something to think about.

      Wednesday, November 2, 2011

      Magic Systems: a Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout Report

      Last week's hangout was a discussion of magic systems. I was joined by Glenda Pfeiffer, Jaleh Dragich, and Harry Markov. Not all the computer cameras were working, but we had a great audio chat.

      Since Harry was the one who had initially proposed the topic of Magic Systems, he got us started with the terrific point that the core of any magic system is the source of the magic in question. Knowing where magic comes from is critical to understanding its properties. The most common model is to treat magic like a (somewhat unusual) resource, almost a material in and of itself, that comes in finite quantities and can be manipulated in various ways. If a deity is the source of magic in your world, then the use of magic will very likely be faith-related. If magic use is hereditary, then bloodlines and social structure will very likely be critical to its use.

      Harry explained the example of one of his own works, in which blood sorcerers had powers that came from splintered pieces of the soul of a single magical creature who had come to Earth. Which piece you were in possession of (heart, eye, etc.) completely dictated what kinds of magic you were able to work, such as when the person with the eye soul-piece was able to do seeing magic. In his system, objects were able to be affected magically if they had a particular "frequency" of magical vibration.

      It's a good idea to avoid all-powerful characters. They may be tempting, but they're far less interesting. Magic use generally has a cost, whether that be in blood, in simple fatigue, in loss of soul or sanity, etc. Readers find it helpful to be able to anticipate what might be possible in the magic system, but if anything is potentially possible, then it's hard to tell why the conflict would even occur without someone waving a hand and ending it all "by magic."

      A successful magic system typically has a method of control or limitation. Harry Potter's magic system flirts along the border of being out of control, at least as I see it, because it's hard to anticipate when some new power or potion will come along and completely change what's possible. This has some advantages because few things in the world are totally uniform in their character, and it does keep us on our toes. It's also consistent with the real-world history of magical practice and the various methods that have been used for it. Needless to say, it works.

      We talked about various different types of systems that we were familiar with. Jaleh talked about her work, where there is a transformed person and a mage - and how she'd thought about who had what kind of magic and how the two interacted with one another. I mentioned that there are many location-based magic systems that use specific places or lay-lines in order to govern the use of magic. Janice Hardy's The Healing Wars trilogy uses a bit of a different system: tired of seeing magicians always being weakling scholars, Janice came up with a system where enchanters have to work magical metal, and therefore are basically huge intelligent blacksmiths. Parallel to that is the natural genetic ability to heal (and move pain) by touch. Laura Anne Gilman apparently has a system where magic comes from the growing of grapes and the making of wine, where mages grow their own grapes, and drinking different wines will allow you to work different magics. My Varin world is an example of a case where I was so dissatisfied with the uncontrolled qualities of magic that I decided not to make it magic at all - the characters think it's magic because they don't understand it, but actually there are natural (if highly unusual) creatures involved in the phenomena that appear to be magical. Jaleh mentioned a system where magic came from shapes and colors around you in the environment, and each magic user had a specific shape that was their favorite - octagons, for example.

      Objects and creatures can be magical, or may not be. Often the magic of objects and creatures is distinct from the magic used by people, and does not operate in the same way.

      Harry remarked that magic is a vehicle to propel the story, and should be about more than just battles between wizards. He mentioned telekinesis, which can be used for all kinds of purposes. He also brought up the great point that the presence of magic in a society would have enormous cultural implications.

      All the distinctions we recognize between haves and have-nots would exist in a world where magic is used. If magic is a resource, then of course some people will have more of it than others. People often portray magic as an elite power possessed by only a few. Glenda pointed out that there are some authors (like Piers Anthony in the Xanth books) who create a situation where everyone does magic but with varying levels of ability. Most people in such situations will have a tiny bit of power, and a few will have a lot. People entirely without power will be outcasts or seen as strange. Harry compared magic to nuclear power, in that it provides power, has practical applications, but can be highly dangerous and toxic.

      The idea of a non-magic-using society where magic exists but is hidden in a secret world, a neighbor-world where magic users only really have dealings with other magic users, is pretty common. We see it in Harry Potter certainly, but in a lot of other contexts as well. That's actually a convenient way to minimize the effect of magic on the larger society.

      If you have a society where magic is common, the effects will be much more widespread. Ask yourself what inventions we have that might have been replaced by the use of magic. Any single innovation that did not occur in your world as a result of magic would have large ongoing effects on the development of technology and society as a whole. When I was helping Janice think through some of the effects of the magic system she'd designed, we had to figure out why people wouldn't use normal medicines as an alternative to going to the magical healers - and we realized that people who used herbs and powders etc. would be seen as dangerously unreliable, possibly dirty, and definitely undesirable. On the other hand, these people do exist, and if they didn't, it would really feel like some major world piece was missing.

      We talked about a few more models of magic that have been used in different contexts. Blake Charleton's Spellwright uses words in different languages for magical purposes, and confines particular magical effects to the use of any specific language. My own novel, Through This Gate, uses writing as a force of creation and each character's magic is influenced by the cultural imagination of the era from which he/she came (one character teleports like blinking, one like stepping through a curtain, one by appearing in a cloud of smoke, and another like falling through a circus trapdoor and being vaulted up into the new location). Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books put a lot of significance on the knowledge of true names as a means of working magic. Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books rely on the magic of the Greek gods and the intervention or non-intervention of the deities themselves (it's interesting to note that the gods have sworn a non-intervention pact; this is a form of magic control and makes the stories much more interesting!). While Percy's powers are heredity-based, some miracle-working can be based on belief (where a crisis of faith can lead to a loss of powers); either way, the identity of the sponsor god or goddess is critical in determining what kind of magic can be accomplished.

      Thanks so much to Harry, Glenda, and Jaleh for coming. I had a great time chatting with you. Today's hangout will be discussing Gender in Worldbuilding, so I hope to see you at 11am today!

      Tuesday, November 1, 2011

      This week's Worldbuilding Hangout

      Just a quick announcement/reminder: this week on Wednesday (tomorrow) at 11am PDT I'll be holding a worldbuilding hangout on Google+. We'll be talking about gender in worldbuilding. I hope you can make it!

      Why Articles Matter - the Known and the New

      On Sunday at the World Fantasy banquet I mentioned to my neighbor that I was going to write this article.

      "I'm going to write about the importance of articles," I said. He replied, "Why articles? You could write an entire story without them."

      He's right, of course. You could - but there would be problems. Not just that the story would sound funny, either. Articles tell you whether something is known information, or new information - and this can be incredibly important to your management of information. Here's the ultra-simple example I used with my WFC neighbor:

      1. I walked into the room. There was a man!

      2. I walked into a room. There was the man!

      In sequence 1, we assume we know the room being talked about. It's been mentioned before in the story, maybe even in the previous sentence. At very least, there's only one room in question, and the narrator is familiar with it. When the narrator then walks into the room, he/she makes a discovery. There is a man there. This is new information. The narrator does not recognize this man at first glance. It might be someone he/she has never seen before, or simply a failure to recognize the man that will then later be corrected. The point is, at least for the moment, the article tells us that we have not encountered this man before.

      In sequence 2, the only thing that has changed is the articles. It's a little clunky, but I think you can see the difference. In this case, the room is what is new information. The narrator has either just discovered that a room is there, and informed us by walking into it, or there is a collection of rooms available to potentially walk into, and the article tells us that the narrator has just picked one. At that point, the narrator discovers a man that he/she has encountered before. It may be a man that the narrator has previously mentioned to readers, or it can be a man who has never been previously mentioned in the text, but who is known to the narrator somehow. Indeed, if we haven't seen him mentioned in the text before, our very next question will be, "What is his significance to the narrator?" Because the article will cause us automatically to assume he has one.

      Back when I was writing my article about proper nouns, I quoted Wikipedia as saying that proper nouns don't get used with articles. Ahm, sorry, Wikipedia, but they do - in special contexts, of course.

      If in my story the narrator calls a person George, rather than "a man," it suggests certain things. At very least it suggests that the narrator recognizes him and has heard of him before. More likely, they have met before and know each other. There's a lot of known-vs-knew information taken care of right there. So you're only going to find the article added in unusual contexts where there is extra information, or an unusual situation, to be imparted.

      Surely you can imagine the waiter approaching you at the dinner table and saying, "A Mr. Jones is here to see you." If the waiter simply said "Mr. Jones," then it would suggest that the waiter knew him in some capacity. In fact, it wouldn't be ungrammatical if the waiter simply said "Mr. Jones," but in that case the waiter would be taking a sort of insider stance, behaving as if he/she and the diner shared this acquaintance in some way.

      We also are all familiar with the expression "the John Smith." It's most typically used with emphasis on the "the" to tell us that among all the possible John Smiths in the world, this one happens to be a specific individual that the speaker and listener can identify as known to both of them in a very obvious way. That's why you will usually find this type of article appearing in front of the name of a famous person who has something of a common name, or occurring in a context where the name of a famous person is familiar, but the context is unexpected. Nobody would be surprised to hear me say, "I saw Neil Gaiman this weekend." But if next week I were to say, "I saw Neil Gaiman at my sports club," listeners would likely say, "Surely not the Neil Gaiman?" Because it would be next to impossible for this illustrious author to appear at my sports club, and far more likely for whoever-it-was to be someone who just happened to have the same name.

      Tracking articles in a story is not usually going to be something you handle consciously. It's a niggly little job when you do. However, it's a good thing to watch out for because it can really throw readers off. If people are giving you comments like, "Who is this guy again?" or "I'm confused - has he been here before?" you might have an article problem.

      Articles are also extremely important when it comes to creating the sensation of insider point of view. We sometimes can unconsciously use the articles that reflect our own knowledge rather than that of the narrator, or another character's knowledge rather than this one's. Make sure as you're going through your revisions to take a look at what your characters are treating as known, as familiar, as belonging to them (a very common implication of using "the" to suggest something is known). Look also at what they consider unfamiliar, and what they are discovering (a common implication of "a").

      It's something to think about.