Thursday, May 31, 2012

"The Liars" to lead Analog's October issue!

When I saw my galley proofs come through the other day - those are the magazine-formatted pages with my story on them that I need to check for typos and problematic punctuation - I knew that meant that my new story would be coming out from Analog in about two months, but not precisely which issue it would appear in.

However, I now have the official news! "The Liars" will be appearing as the lead novelette in the October issue of Analog (appearing on stands and online in August)... and the cover art is being done by Michael Whelan!

I've been an admirer of Michael Whelan's work since I was a child, so I was amazed and honored when I heard this news. I promise I'll share the art with you as soon as I can. And here's a little blurb for the story:

The Liars
Allied Systems linguists Adrian and his wife Qing meet a friend on the eco-vacation planet of Poik-Paradise, where they are dismayed to find the Paradise Company exploiting the native people as cute tour guides. Adrian's skill with the local language attracts a guide named Op who doesn't seem quite like the others, and the longer they spend with her, the more it seems that something sinister is happening in Paradise. Is the Paradise Company up to something? Are the Poik? How can they find out how deep this goes when they're not sure if Op can be trusted?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Privacy: A Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout Report

This was a topic that really took off. I was joined at the hangout by Jaleh Dragich, Glenda Pfeiffer, Liz Arroyo, Erin Peterson, and David Peterson.

We started out talking about the privacy of the body, specifically, the issue of modesty in dress. Modesty is an interesting topic because the definition of what is "modest" depends a lot on the social and cultural context. I told a story about how I was barred from my university cafeteria because I'd been dared to wear a bathing suit (one-piece) and they insisted I go back and put on a bathrobe. Bathing suits that cover almost nothing are appropriate at the beach (even nakedness is appropriate in some places) whereas they are not acceptable in other contexts. Age also has a huge influence on standards of dress, as when parents think nothing of taking naked pictures of their babies in their first bath, but those pictures become the source of merriment and embarrassment at a 21st birthday party. Then of course there are also cultural norms. I was shocked when I first discovered the "monokini" (i.e. a bikini without the top) being worn for sunbathing in Europe, but everyone thought it was normal. Then there were the prostitutes displaying themselves in the windows in the red light district of Amsterdam as we drove through... And that's only scratching the surface. There are also striking norms on the more conservative side such as those we can see with Amish or Orthodox Jewish dress, conservative Islam, etc.

Erin told us an interesting story about a Dutch actress on HBO's Game of Thrones. The actress wasn't at all shocked at the idea of appearing on the show naked, because her view of it was that the privacy of the circumstances portrayed in the scene was the deciding factor; American viewers felt that the public nature of the eventual showing of the TV show was the deciding factor, and so felt a shock at her nudity that she did not.

We also discussed the issue of whether one keeps the door shut when dressing. In the US in general, kids tend to be accustomed to being dressed by their parents, but eventually learn a modesty that causes them to want to dress alone with the door shut - but this can be influenced by gender and family relationships as well as age. In Japan I encountered an unusual form of modesty in the context public bathing. In the baths I visited, the bathers were segregated by gender, but people felt little modesty in the baths themselves and were generally unconcerned about being in the bath with people they didn't know. At most they would bring a small washcloth to keep over the lower regions. By contrast, the same people were very sensitive about getting undressed. They would come in clothed, shut themselves into a private cubicle to get undressed, then come out with (or without) the aforementioned washcloth and get in the baths with no further need to maintain privacy.

Privacy also applies to information. Jaleh brought up the issue of how much information one is expected to share about one's "private life." Do you talk about everything? What about old or suppressed secrets? As Erin asked, do you talk about your drinking habits (alcohol)? She told us about a situation where a child in the family commented to a relative stranger that the adults in the family were "drinking beer all the time." Even apart from the question of what "all the time" means, it's clear that there is such thing as "too much information." TMI is one of our modern expressions - but how is it defined? It differs culturally across groups, across ages, etc.

David mentioned that in Deaf culture, people tend to share a lot more personal information than they do in hearing culture, concerning things like weight, appearance, etc. This can cause cultural strife between members of the hearing and Deaf communities.

Jaleh said she takes a lot of inspiration from the kids she has seen in her experiences in retail, and the kinds of things they reveal (unintentionally). David picked that up and turned us to the question of speaking in front of people as though they were not present. We often reveal things in front of "staff" or other invisible people - sleeping/unconscious people, crazy people, or children, for example - that we would not reveal if we were watched by others within our own group.

I explained a complex situation of information privacy and management in my novel. Aloran the servant is given a piece of information, namely that another servant has stolen the key to his mistress' diary. He wants to return it to her, but the servant who has stolen it is of higher rank, so Aloran can't force him to give it back... and if he steals it back, his mistress will see the key in his hand and assume that Aloran has opened the diary and trespassed on her private thoughts. Neither does Aloran feel comfortable telling his mistress for fear she'll think he has obtained private information about her inappropriately (they have a difficult relationship). Therefore he chooses to approach her son anonymously so that the son can act on his behalf, and the private information of the family won't be compromised by anyone other than the servant who originally stole the key. Essentially, the whole roundabout method is determined by what kind of information is deemed private and what kind of privacy borderlines may or may not be invaded by different members of the family and Household. Also in that Household, there are examples of what we discussed above, namely servants hearing information while no one realizes they are listening.

Another example of people talking in front of others and assuming they "don't count" as listeners (an unwarranted assumption of privacy) is talking in front of others as if they don't understand your language. Many of us had had experiences of this nature. Liz and Erin had both been spoken in front of in Spanish. My husband and I have been spoken in front of in Japanese many times, and when we lived there we came close to making a sport of pointing out that these people didn't have as much privacy as they had assumed (yes, we seriously embarrassed some people). Jaleh mentioned something similar occurring in a minivan ad (possibly Volvo). David talked about a German conlanger (language creator) he knows who can speak Mandarin and runs into similar situations. Jaleh also mentioned an instance of this occurring in the Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey - it is certainly easy and piquant to add instances in any multilingual situation in your story!

As I had just watched the Doctor Who episode, "The End of the Earth," this put me in mind of the question of the TARDIS, which was revealed to be "partly psychic" and to be translating all the strange languages around Rose into English. Most relevant to this discussion was her immediate reaction, which was to feel that her privacy had been invaded by this psychic influence (an interesting choice, and it showed some subtlety, as I'd expected her just to accept simultaneous translation without comment). This brought us to the question of telepathy, and Jaleh mentioned that in Babylon 5 there are strict controls on telepaths: they must either suppress their telepathy, or join the Psycorps telepathic group (subjecting themselves to its guidance), or go to prison.

Erin brought up some very interesting questions at this point. Are the emotions we broadcast on our faces to be considered private or not? Are our public behaviors to be considered private? Certainly tracking or following someone is considered stalking, and clearly a privacy violation. There are plenty of cases where a private citizen taking pictures of something that is publicly visible (like government installations) is considered off-limits as an invasion of privacy. Glenda mentioned an instance where a man was caught taking pictures of teenage girls at a high school game, and punished for it - but what were the specific elements of context that made this inappropriate? The age of the girls being photographed is probably one; the telephoto lens that allowed inappropriate closeness was probably another. Some people consider Google maps to be an invasion of privacy. What kinds of behaviors might be considered privacy violations in your world?

There is also some wonderful stuff to be explored in a context where people are stuck together in a confined space where privacy becomes very difficult, like a spaceship or a prison, etc. What do you do when you have no privacy? How do you keep things to yourself? What happens if you get overstimulated by contact with others?

In Japan, personal space is generally at bowing distance when in friendly yet private situations. After all, you don't want to conk heads with someone accidentally in mid-conversation (this distance is slightly further out than handshake distance). When commuting, however, I have found that the typical sense of personal space totally changes, as though the boundary line has moved to the surface of the body. People will not speak to you, will avoid eye contact, and will even walk right through you as if you weren't there. To me, this feels like an invasion of privacy, but it appears to be the norm in the huge Tokyo crowds. I once took a group of US high school students to Kyoto and had to encourage them to get on a crowded bus. The bus arrived, the door opened, the students decided there was no room on the bus and would not get on. The bus left. I then had to give them a talking-to, explaining that there *was* room on the bus, that the next five buses would be just as crowded, and if they ever hoped to arrive at their destination, they must disregard the wall of people and get in anyway.

In the US we can run into other kinds of difficulties with the sense of personal space. I'm sure many of you have run into situations where a friend was far too huggy for comfort, or even had conversations where you were being chased backwards in slow motion. Here are some questions you might ask. How do you get close to a person in your world? How does one move from one set of privacy rules (acquaintance rules) to another (friend rules, lover rules)? Is it difficult? How risky is it?

Crossing privacy borders is always a risky business. Typically, we agreed, a particular type of overture or "ticket" is required to make the transition successfully. When one approaches a science fiction author, one kind of ticket is a knowledge and informed opinion about that person's work. Children can often serve as a kind of ticket, as they are a point of commonality between individuals and can be turned into a "safe" shared topic. Jaleh called this being a part of the "Parents' Club." Liz mentioned that having a shared place of origin can be an effective ticket. These tickets are not unconditional, either - often it will be okay to talk about kids but not to talk about oneself. Erin mentioned that it's often okay to ask for advice or be self-critical, where it would not be okay to brag or talk about oneself positively. I also thought about how very often pregnant women will encounter random people who think that the shared experience of pregnancy and parenthood licenses them to comment, to touch the pregnant woman's belly, and to give her advice.

Obviously this is a topic with lots of possible applications. I really enjoyed the discussion and I hope this report gives you some interesting places to go in your thinking. Thanks again to everyone who attended.

Today's hangout will be at 11am and will be discussing gender roles.



Thursday, May 24, 2012

Culture Share: Philippines - Engagement and Wedding feasts in Ifugao

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Rochita Loenen-Ruiz discusses engagement and wedding feasts in the Ifugao province of the Philippines.


Engagement and Wedding feasts in Ifugao by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

In Ifugao, courtship begins with a show of informal interest between a man and a woman.  If a man is interested in pursuing a formal relationship with the woman, his first step is to approach the elders of the woman’s family. Not just her parents but also her elders.

While there may be some unspoken agreement (as tends to be the case in this modern age) the woman’s family will still ask the woman for her reply to the man after the man has presented his case and asked for the permission to court her formally.

If the woman says “no” before the elders, this means the man has been turned down. If she says “yes” to the man’s declaration, then it means that they will have to arrange for a formal engagement ceremony. This ceremony is negotiated by the mediator and usually takes place some months after the woman has given her “yes” to the man’s declaration.

To the Ifugao, this formal courtship is the man’s statement of his seriousness and his intent to marry.
If the woman says yes then the following things take place:

1.    The man has to bring a mediator who will speak on his behalf. In my brother’s case, we had a family friend who was a former Mumbaki (native priest). This man agreed to negotiate and act as go-between for elders of the woman’s clan and my brother.
2.    The mediator is very important because it is he who negotiates the date for the engagement ceremony which must take place before the entire clan. This engagement ceremony is called the moma.
3.    The mediator also negotiates the number of pigs the prospective groom must bring to the moma. In my brother’s case, he was asked to bring two pigs of a good size.
4.    During the engagement ceremony itself, only the groom, the mediator and members of the woman’s clan are present.  Sometimes a member of the groom’s family will be allowed to attend, but basically the ceremony is held for the woman’s clan.

These are symbolic elements used during the engagement ceremony:
Rice
Betelnut
Salt
Dried Meat

In some cases, the engagement ceremony is as far as it goes. Marriage is a very costly endeavour and unlike marriages in cities like Manila that are westernized, there is no such thing as rsvp when you get married in Ifugao.

In Ifugao, the wedding feast is a community endeavour with the entire community pitching in and everyone working together to prepare the food and to provide for the wedding feast.

Tradition dictates that marriage should take place a year after the engagement ceremony. Terms are set before the engagement. In the case of my youngest brother, his wife-to-be expressed her desire to continue on with her intention to obtain her degree in medicine. In this, her family as well as my brother agreed to support her.

Terms were also set with regards to what the family desires the man to provide for the marriage ceremony. The normal demand is for the groom to provide ten to twelve good-sized pigs for the wedding feast.

Some couples chose to elope or to get married in the Western way to evade the high costs. Some get married in the city as getting married in the mountains costs a lot. One of our friends who got married spent half a million pesos for her wedding. This included the cost of a wedding performed in the Christianized way as well as the cost of a marriage feast conducted in the Ifugao way.

There is a reason why ten to twelve pigs are asked for.  A marriage is meant to be celebrated with the entire village and it is meant to symbolize a sharing of joy as well as a sharing of abundance.  It is not simply an endeavour of the groom. The bride’s family and her community contribute towards the feast as well. Some will bring rice for the marriage feast, others will bring salt and herbs needed for cooking, and others will bring vegetables as well as other delicious treats.

During the wedding feast itself, there is no telling the exact number of guests who will come as the feast is open for guests who are considered family, friends, and members of community as well as the extended community.

Rochita was the first Filipina writer to be accepted into the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop. She attended the workshop in 2009 as the recipient of the Octavia Butler Scholarship. At present, Rochita resides in the Netherlands, but this could change in the future. Her short fiction has been published in The Philippines as well as outside of The Philippines. She has a livejournal at  http://rcloenen-ruiz.livejournal.com

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

TTYU Retro: Cut words? Or add words?

Does your work-in-progress have too many words? Or too few?

It's a hard question to answer. Over the last decade of my writing I've run into a lot of "too long"/"too short" situations, and after I saw this interesting little piece for copywriters about how cutting more words might not be such a good idea, I thought I should write a bit about it. I'm going to try to put this in terms of different examples I've seen and/or experienced myself.

The Mega-Work
What you might find yourself saying: "I have this novel, and yeah, it's 350 thousand words long..."
This one is hard to diagnose. Chances are there's more than one thing going on (see "Long Experiment" below). When I wrote my mega-work, I was astonished to find that my first thorough revision cut out thousands of words, and put thousands more back. The total word count barely changed, because I was figuring out where the words really needed to go. An agent gave me great advice: "This is probably three books." It had other problems that needed editing, but guess what? It's three books.

The Short Experiment
What you might hear critiquers saying: "I have a hard time accepting your premise"/"You're doing too much telling"/"You're gesturing at the story"
This one is probably too short. I'm not saying that pieces like this don't sell (I've seen at least one in Analog!). However, if the premise isn't sticking, you may not have used enough words to flesh it out and give it a strong foundation. If you're being accused of "telling" or "gesturing" you may want to get closer to the story and dramatize more of it. Make sure you're not just talking out the message of your story, but enacting it by placing readers in scenes that demonstrate the truths you want to capture.

The Voice Piece
What you might hear critiquers saying: "I love the voice in this one"/"The thing that really worked for me was the texture..."
Be very careful about cutting words out of this one. Yes, there may be words you can cut (I just took a piece like this down from 8300 to 8000 words), but make sure that you're keeping a close eye on which words are contributing to voice and texture at the same time they contribute to plot and character. Those are going to be the ones you'll want to keep. Of course, there are more stripped-down voices out there - in the case of a stripped-down voice, the process of going through and identifying which words contribute to the voice might be a really good way of figuring out which words can be cut.

The Long ExperimentWhat you might hear critiquers saying: "I'm hearing refrains (repetitions) in your work"/"You're always saying the same thing more than once"
Sometimes I'll use words to feel my way into a piece. I used to do this a lot more when I was first writing and exercising my storytelling muscles, seeing how beautifully, dramatically, etc. I could describe something. One indicator of refrains is when you find yourself using comma-delimited phrases like "Her hair was soft as summer, as all-encompassing as the sea." There's nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but you've just described her hair twice. Which one works better for the story context? You should probably keep that one and leave the other one out. The same thing can also happen across sentences or even paragraphs - you might find that you're both telling and showing, like saying, "He was shocked. His face went white, and his hands shook." In this case, if his face is white and his hands are shaking, it's evident that he's shocked and you don't need to state it explicitly.

What about publishers/agents and their word count guidelines?
This is a tricky one. What I've found is that ideas typically come in different sizes. There's the idea that's naturally flash (<1000), or short (<7500), because if you look at it for too long things will start poking out that detract from the effectiveness of the idea. There's the idea that wants to be a novelette (<10K), because just talking about events isn't enough. There's the idea that wants to be a fast-paced novel (60-75K, common for YA); there's the idea that wants to be epic (100-120K). Within that, however, there is a lot of room for wordcount-wiggling. A lot of words can be cut if you just go through saying "I need to take out 30 words per page" (you'd be surprised)! Those are word cuts on the sentence level. If you're 30 thousand words over your target count, though, then it's best to consider the story structure as a whole, and see if you're putting a lot of words on tangents or subplots instead of sticking to the backbone conflict of the tale.

In the end, it's all very dependent on the individual story. Listen to your audience to get clues about where and how you're hitting them. And it may turn out that you need to cut words and add words, because you needed those words; they were just the wrong ones.

You just have to try it and see.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

TTYU Retro: What the heck are queries good for, anyway?

...never mind synopses!

This is a question I see all the time on the writers' forums I visit.* I'll even admit, I used to ask such questions myself. "Isn't it possible to be a great story writer and a bad query writer?" "How is that fair?"

It's true - queries require a totally different kind of skill from novels. When you dive into a novel, you're putting yourself in the story, seeing where it goes, pushing deeper and deeper. When you write a query, you're trying to find the four things that are the most important for catching an agent or editor's attention. These are four things I got from a query workshop with Donald Maass at the Surrey International Writers' Conference, and they are:

1. protagonist
2. conflict
3. setting
4. something unique

Once you have them, you've got basically two or three paragraphs to capture an entire 300 or so pages of wonder and detail.

Here's what I've learned, though, over the years I've spent writing, querying, and trying to get published. The query says some very important things about the story.

Funny enough, if you read a query, you can see really clearly how an author understands the overarching structure and content of their story. In my experience, I've found that the skill involved in creating a query is extremely similar to the skill involved in creating story macro-structure. Here's the way I'd summarize it:

If you know how to write an effective query, then you know what your story is about.

This may sound odd, since of course we all know what our stories are about. But if we are able to step back and capture the essential compelling conflict of the story in one paragraph, very likely this means that that component, the story's backbone, is strong and pulls people through the novel as well.

Similarly, synopses are hard, but if we can get people to enjoy them by putting elements of voice and motive and consequence in them, then we can show an agent or an editor that we recognize those elements of our own work and we know how to put proper emphasis on them.

Learning how to write queries and synopses hasn't been exactly fun, and it's been hard. But I feel like I've learned a lot about writing a better novel at the same time. In fact, some time ago I wrote a query for a book I haven't even written yet - just to test whether I'd correctly identified the right person to be main protagonist, the correct primary conflict, the proper setting, and something that would make this book unique. It's already helped me to envision how the story outline will look - which is a great help, since this book is going to be really complex - and at the same time it's helped me to feel more confident that the novel will one day be ready for submission.

So I encourage all of you to think through your queries, and your novels, at the same time. Consider the query a necessary part of the process of testing your story's readiness.

Then, go for it.


*Analog SF, Asimov's SF, Absolute Write, Backspace Writers

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dialogue, and specificity: How talk depends on the talkers

I just got through with a great discussion of pregnancy and parenting in worldbuilding with some great folks, and while I will be reporting on it next week, I was immediately struck by something that I think has a lot of bearing on how we write dialogue: how what people talk about depends on who is doing the talking.

In our discussion, the population of the discussion changed significantly over the course of an hour. At first there were three of us present, all mothers; then two more people joined us, not mothers; then another mother joined us, one in a non-traditional family; then a father joined us. Each time someone new joined the conversation the tenor of the talk and the topics we discussed changed significantly.

If I were to characterize the way that the talk changed, it would be something like this.

When it was just the three mothers talking, our focus was mostly on the particular differences between our various experiences (and question of how often people ignore such variation in fiction). Lots of stuff was sort of assumed as common ground and therefore not mentioned.

When the non-mothers joined us, all of a sudden all that common ground became open to conversation because there were people present who did not share that experience with us. So variation was still a focus, but the range of topics discussed actually broadened - and I would remark that the mothers among us also varied on some of the variables upon which we'd previously assumed commonality. We progressed in our topic from pregnancy to babies and childcare, but a lot of it still focused on the question of realism - how to portray pregnancy and babies in a realistic way by expanding our knowledge of people's real experiences.

When the mother in a non-traditional family joined us, a lot more topics opened up - not just the basics of pregnancy and parenting, but further economic variables became important, and we started talking about how the experience of parenting had changed our lives (something that hadn't come up before). Each of us had had a very different experience.

When the father joined us, the discussion changed again because he had a particular fiction project he wanted to get inspiration on, and that changed our talk entirely. Instead of talking about a general range of experience, we started talking about a particular person's situation in a particular world where the social and economic conditions - and the person's story conflict - were very different and could be expected to interact with the problems of parenting in a very specific way. For a mother on the run with an infant, what would be the tricky issues? Suddenly we got very specific about diapering and breastfeeding and bonding between mother and child, changes in expectations about what would be taken care of by the mother and what would be handled by her support system, and how the disappearance of that support system had changed things.

I take two things out of this that may be of use for writers. First, for worldbuilding in general: the worldbuilding phase itself is useful, but you'll be doing a lot more worldbuilding and you can learn a lot better stuff when you're working with specific situations and conflicts of the characters in a story. Second, be aware that the dialogue and conversations you write will be drastically different depending on who is involved. The arrival of a new character will most likely completely change the tenor of the talk.

The following factors (at least) will be important to what kind of changes occur:
  • each person's amount of personal knowledge and experience on the topic
  • each person's understanding of how much knowledge and experience he/she shares with other people in the discussion
  • each person's personal motivation, i.e. what specific information he/she hopes to get from the talk
All of these are worth thinking about while you build worlds, and while you plan conversations - particularly those that happen between more than two people.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

TTYU Retro: Bringing characters together (slightly updated)

Personal alliances can be critical to the success of a story. To me these include acquaintances, friendships, close friendships and romances. I find that it's really important, if I'm going to have two characters who have a friendship, to understand why it is that they are friends. One of the potential pitfalls of writing stories is that we can set up our cast of characters and place them on stage, announcing, "these people are friends" without deeply considering what they have in common and what brought them together. When we have two people fall in love, this can (I suppose) happen instantly and simply through pure physical attraction, but I like to consider a little more than just the "hhhot" factor when trying to get two people together. Indeed, I find it even more fun when the people are coming together in a more complicated way, as through adversity, overcoming dislike, becoming attracted without realizing it, etc.

I'm going to consider some basic alignment ingredients first, and then talk about engaging in the process of bringing two people together for an unlikely romance.

My current protagonist, Tagret, has three friends he always hangs around with. They have ended up together partly because they're all well-bred boys with a lot of money, a good deal of kindness, and an interest in school. However, each of them has an additional reason to hang around Tagret, and that affects how they deal with him. Gowan is very politically oriented, and not only does he like Tagret, but he recognizes the strength of Tagret's political position (through his father) and thinks it's advantageous to hang out with him because of that. This means the other boys are inclined to ask him for advice on political matters. Fernar is strong and everyone wants him on his side in a fight, but he feels less confident politically and values Tagret and Gowan for what they can teach him. Tagret's best friend is Reyn. Why? Because both of them share the experience of living alone with a sibling and a house full of servants while their parents have been sent to other cities for jobs. Because of this, they stick together and help each other through trouble more than the others. Details like these not only make it plausible that these boys would be friends, but allow each person to interact differently with the others.

We can think of these as things that the characters have in common. We can also bring characters closer in a story through letting them face adversity together. Events that bring characters closer are generally increasing the ways in which the two people align with one another.

Okay, so let's look at romance for a minute. The #1-A thing that everyone is going to think of to bring two people together is physical attraction. Yep, no surprise there. But particularly if a romance is going to be building over the course of an entire story, and ending in a lasting relationship rather than just a one-night stand, there has to be more to it than just hotness. I will tend to think of it in terms of two lists: 1. the list of things that separate the two people and 2. the list of things that they have in common. If I cause events to negate the effects of anything in list 2, the people will fall apart. If they are going instead to form a lasting relationship, any extremely serious objections or separation elements from list one have to be directly and deliberately countered by adding elements to list two.

In my Varin world, caste level distinctions are huge - cultural as well as legal - and not easily countered. One of the cross-caste relationships in my books results because a servant sees someone else disguised as another servant, and becomes both physically attracted to her and intellectually engaged with her before he realizes his mistake. Importantly, thought, he is also at the same time learning things about the historical origins of the caste distinctions that cause him to doubt what he'd always believed about them. Another relationship begins more subtly, because one of the characters feels so intimidated by the physicality of the other that his physicality impresses her more than his caste. Here the intimidation itself is an influence that keeps them apart - however, because it causes her to disregard his caste, I can then work on removing the sense of intimidation, and thereafter the caste factors will have less power to separate them.

I keep the alignment/separation lists in my mind when I'm writing conversations, and when I'm writing descriptions. If one character expresses unadulterated admiration for another, then that is going to suggest bringing them together - but it may not be realistic or appropriate for that person to express such admiration. I therefore play with ambivalence by putting expressions of admiration and separation in the same sentence or internalized description. "Alien but beautiful" might express one kind of ambivalence. "Possessing refined warmth" also suggests a contrast that might be meaningful to a different person.

Whenever we work with close relationships, we end up playing right along the edge of discomfort. Getting closer with someone else involves considerable risk. This should be reflected in the writing. Often events that tighten alignment also cause discomfort or a sense of invasion. Then the question becomes what to make of that discomfort - whether to soothe it, or to intensify it, etc. Discomfort is an opportunity for a writer who is trying to align two people, because situations that are uncomfortable are often perfect for initiating change in a person's mind.

When you're working with relationships in your stories, do take the time to ask yourself some questions like those below:
1. Why are these people friends? What specific things do they find most compelling about one another, and why?
2. Does this relationship require a backstory of specific aligning events, such as hardship? Or does it simply require basic common conditions?
3. How big a role does physical attraction play in the relationship between these characters?
4. What keeps or pulls these two people apart?
5. What ingredients might be able to counter the factors listed in question 4, and bring them together?
6. Can I use common experiences to erase the effects of prejudgment?
7. Can I align these two people in a similar way relative to a third party, event or task?
8. Are these people aware that they are coming together? If they are, how do they react to the knowledge? If they aren't, why aren't they? Is there something about the nature of the separation factors that keeps them from considering the possibility of their attraction?

Please be aware (though it should be no surprise to most of you) that I'm coming at these questions from a human-relations and anthropology viewpoint rather than a romance-writing viewpoint, so I can't speak to the particular requirements of the romance genre. However, I hope that these considerations can help you in thinking about relationships in your own work.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Link: A terrific article on "The Lie" as a driver in your story

My friend Janice Hardy put me on to this article. It's a good one, and is really making me think. What lie does your character believe at the beginning? How does he or she find the way to the truth by the end of the story?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

My schedule for BayCon 2012!

Do you live in the San Francisco Bay area? Do you love science fiction and fantasy - and steampunk, and slipstream, and magical realism, and all the things in between? Then come to BayCon 2012 on Memorial Day weekend... and as a bonus, you can see me! (Yay! I love to meet blog followers.) Here's my schedule, and I'm super excited about it.

Here it is:

1. Saturday from 11:30 AM to 1:00 PM in San Tomas
Fairy Tales and Mythology
with Kevin Andrew Murphy, Ann Finnin, and Valerie Estelle Frankel
       What are we teaching our children about the fairy tales and mythology
       in today's media, or even as bedtime stories?  Are we staying true, or
       drifting?



2. Saturday from 2:30 PM to  4:00 PM in San Tomas
Getting Girls Hooked on Science and Engineering
with Karen Williams, Kay Pannell, Clare Bell
       Ladies in lab coats:  Following in the footsteps of Madam Curie.


3. Sunday from 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM in Saratoga
Writers Workshop 3 
with Adrienne Gormley, G. David Nordley, Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff)
Note: This session is not open to general convention guests, but to workshop participants only.

4. Sunday from 1:00 PM to 2:30 PM in Ballroom A [notice room change!]
The Evolution of Female Characters in SF and Fantasy
with Veronica Belmont, Deborah J. Ross, Daryl G. Frazetti, Brandon Sanderson, and Diana L. Paxson
       From damsels in distress to sword-wielding, gun-toting, and military
       masterminds, have women found their place, or are they 'feminized' men?
       Do the women truly reflect the changing attitudes of the roles of
       women?



5. Sunday from 2:30 PM to 4:00 PM in BallroomB-C-D [notice room change!]
World Building Basics
with Pat MacEwen, Paula Butler, David J. Peterson, Brandon Sanderson, and Eytan Kollin
       Panelists discuss the basics of worldbuilding. If you are going to set
       your fantasy or science fiction piece is an alien place, what kinds of
       things should you think of prior to doing so?



If anything gets added, dropped or changed, I'll let you know as soon as I do. This is going to be a super convention!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

High Culture versus Low Culture (Daily Practices): A worldbuilding hangout report

I was joined for this discussion by Brian Dolton, Glenda Pfeiffer, Erin Peterson, David Peterson, Jaleh Dragich, and Margaret McGaffey-Fisk.

The first critical point of this discussion was that when we're worldbuilding culture, we should make sure to include both high and low culture, because either or both of these can easily be neglected. In our world, in fact, there are very few places where you won't see any sign of high culture, while daily practices (low culture) are all around us constantly.

In my story, At Cross Purposes (Analog Jan/Feb 2011), I had to create an environment where there would be very few signs of high culture, so I put my humans in a terraforming station where there were just enough people to do the job at hand, and very little time for decorating the place. This actually played into the cultural clash that occurred, since for my aliens, "art" and "purpose" were the same word!

Varin is an entirely different story, because there I use a lot of high culture borrowed from our world, such as orchestral music and embroidery and architecture and furniture... but while eating utensils and bathing are similar to our world, quite a few of the daily cultural practices are very different. These similarities are intended to create the feeling that the world is familiar, and that the reader lives there.

Recently I've been reading China Miéville's Embassytown, and that's a case where the elements of both high and low culture are intended to be very different from those we're familiar with; they come complete with alien terms, some of which are entirely mysterious, and others of which use our knowledge of cognates to hint at meanings. This creates a sense of extreme alienness.  We also talked about The City and The City, where there were two cities which entirely overlapped, but where culturally the people were taught only to "see" members of one or the other, and they could only acknowledge each other's existence in designated locations, or bad things would happen. These two books are great places to look for inspiration in designing cultures.

Very often in my reading I will notice that elements of high or low culture appear to be missing from a book. Brian said he notices that there isn't much art and architecture in a lot of fantasy and science fiction, leading to the feeling of a blank spot. If you're going to be using a Renaissance setting, he says, use art - because that period was all about art and architecture! Cathedrals are an example of the kind of amazing art and cooperative effort toward high culture that was possible even in very early times - don't forget about it as you create a world with a medieval or Renaissance setting.

Erin remarked that people cared about art and beauty far earlier than that, and that beauty can be a mark of status even among nomadic people. As she remarked, "Achulëan tool sets are gorgeous!" It's always a good idea to consider what your people think of as beautiful, and what kind of art they make, whether it's painting on a cave wall or designing fabulous laser-light displays.

One show I have enjoyed for precisely this reason was Avatar: The Last Airbender. It is a great demonstration of how art and architecture can lend a sense of history to an environment. No one should make the mistake of thinking that the existence of fine art and architecture is merely an indicator that some people are stuck up, or that somehow there are no poor people in a society. It can do so much to tell you how people live in a place, and how long they have been there. If there's a completed cathedral in a town, you can be sure that people have been living there for hundreds of years!

Jaleh brought up textiles and fabric. These are a great example of the intersection of high culture and art with daily cultural practices. Norse tablet weaving is an example of a very early practice that reaches a very high level of sophistication. Stories of weavers come from all kinds of real world cultures, and it makes sense for them to exist in many fictional worlds as well. Clothing is an art, and a practical consideration, and interacts with climate and geography, and reveals things about daily practices - in effect, it's a worldbuilding goldmine just waiting to be explored. I also was reminded of when I first learned that the scarves and shawls with money sewn onto them were an indicator of how certain nomadic peoples actually stored and carried their money. I told the group about a visit I took to the Kyoto textile museum. They had a display there where you could watch an incredibly complex metal-threaded obi (waist wrap) fabric being woven, and places where you could learn about dyeing techniques, etc. It was amazing.

Music is everywhere in our world. You have iPods, and people grooving down to their own private music on the streets, and people "sharing" music out of their cars, and playing music in their homes, or taking music lessons... so make sure to go beyond the "bard" (at Brian's particular recommendation) when you're looking at music in your world. Music can happen with sophisticated instruments in orchestras, but it can also happen with hands and feet and voices - or trash cans and plastic buckets and sticks.

Another place of convergence between art and daily practices is personal adornment, i.e. Jewelry and makeup. I recently realized that I had made the appearance of makeup and jewelry very restricted in Varin, and had to think through how I was doing it (I decided to make it subject to both caste trends and personal styles).

When you think about daily cultural practices - low culture - perhaps the easiest place to start is at the table. Forks are incredibly common, but they aren't the only option! I was thrilled to see people using chopsticks in Avatar: The Last Airbender. And still there's more. You can use your fingers, or a trencher, or just a knife. You can have all different kinds of spoons, or drink straight from a bowl. You can use straws to consume liquids. You can use roasting sticks or skewers. What other things can you think of?

Jaleh took us onto the topic of hairbrushes and combs, and hair adornments. These can be made of all different kinds of materials - stone, bone, wood, plastic, metal...the list goes on. Rubber bands, pins, barrettes (even chopsticks!).

This led us to more aspects of personal hygiene. Brian remarked that Queen Elizabeth was known for bathing once a month "whether she needed it or not." Does one use a toilet or a bidet? Is there such a thing as toilet paper? What kind of supplies do menstruating women use? How do people brush their teeth? David told us about a wonderful song by Nigerian musician Fela Kuti called "Don't worry about my mouth" where he described the daily hygienic practices of his own people and why they were superior to (what I'll call) the Western approach - for example, why a chew stick was more effective than a toothbrush and toothpaste. Why toilet paper was an inferior solution to the problem. I noted, and Brian confirmed, that in many Muslim countries people have bottles of water to clean themselves instead of toilet paper. We talked about the "techno-toilets" (my term) in Tokyo homes and how vastly different they are from the minimalist squat toilets that you find in some tourist areas of Japan (Brian encountered them on Mount Koya, but I've seen them in quite a few other places too). I talked about the "flush noise" machines that are very common in Japan, specifically invented to create a sound imitating that of a flush, so that people can cover up the sounds of their visit to the bathroom.

By the end of the hour we were starting in on issues of privacy, so we decided that would be our topic for this Wednesday, May 9, 2012 at 11am PDT. See you there!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

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 a person in power, 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.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Suspension of Disbelief & the "Show, Don't Tell" of Worldbuilding: a Google+ Hangout Report

 This was a great discussion with a rather long title! I was joined by Brian Dolton, Glenda Pfeiffer, Kyle Aisteach, Liz Arroyo, Janet Harriett, and Jaleh Dragich.

I invited Kyle to open the discussion since this was a topic he had proposed. Kyle noted that many books he's reading for his MFA degree, such as My Antonia, he finds affidavits or other statements about how the book was based on a true story, and found this kind of thing strange because coming from a background of science fiction and fantasy he doesn't feel that any guarantee of truthfulness is necessary for people to "buy into" a story. I noted that a similar kind of thing was done with the movie FARGO, which was fictional but for some reason had a similar disclaimer of truthfulness attached to it.

My first instinct was to consider the possibility that there are cultural constraints on imagination. As Glenda mentioned, we're considering a time period (at least in the case of the earlier literary works) when science fiction and fantasy were not nearly as huge as they are today. However, even today there are cultural groups where true stories are seen as more valuable than fictional ones, and kids particularly are discouraged from engaging in creative narrative. I mentioned "What no bedtime story means," a very interesting piece of anthropological research by Shirley Brice Heath.

Brian asked, "Didn't someone freeze to death looking for the money they buried in FARGO?" A Google search turned up this article - so yes, someone did get taken in (in a most awful way). Jaleh mentioned that people keep contacting Spider Robinson to ask if Callahan's Cross-Time Saloon is real (it's not!).

In fact, when we're writing science fiction or fantasy, we're often mixing things that are real with things that aren't. The technique helps our fiction seem more real, and be more involving. If things are too real, though, the sense of wonder may be lost. On the other hand, if they're too unreal, readers may be knocked out of the story. It's a tough balance. And while we're at it, how do we decide what to show and what to tell?

My guests were ready to jump in and consider these issues, of course. Jaleh says what throws her out of a story is seeming inconsistency in the world without any apparent reason for it. We all agreed that if something really unusual is going to happen, its abnormality should at least be acknowledged by the point of view character, and the author should consider building in some kind of explanation. Kyle said he objects when it appears that an author hasn't thought through all the ramifications of something - as an example he asked why it is that in the game of Quidditch, all the players aren't constantly on the lookout for the snitch on the Seeker's behalf (since it's so incredibly valuable).

We also discussed what I playfully called "worldbuilding TMI." Just because you've designed a world with great breadth doesn't mean you have to travel to every location. You should not include explanations of every social detail. It's very important to find a method of filtering the vast amount of information available in a world (like ours!) and making it consumable by a single mind. The best method I've found for this is character point of view. By allowing our characters to have a logical amount of ignorance, we can help to keep the information burden from being overwhelming, and also leave surprises and revelations for our readers to discover.

Kyle brought up a really interesting point about screen acting against green screens (with CGI backrounds). Apparently it's really important for the actor not to try to visualize everything around them, but simply to try to see one single detail very clearly. This more than the macroscopic approach lends believability to their acting. Visually speaking, this kind of single-detail focus provides a great link between the character and the background, and since both the actor's performance and the CGI environment can be seen by the audience, that is usually enough to bring the whole thing together. In writing, the scenario is a bit different, because we don't have the visual medium to bring everything into our senses at once. However, there is a similarity inasmuch as we are very often using single details to evoke much larger knowledge sets - as when putting a cell phone in scene one implies an entire world of available technology. I compared it to releasing water, as follows: by putting in the single detail, you open up the flow of water into the available set of assumptions that comes with it. If you don't want the water to fill the space completely, you have to be very careful to block and channel it in critical areas. Thus, if I have a scene with stone arches and embroidered hangings on the walls, I'm going to be evoking a medieval castle or renaissance palace, and if I don't want people also to assume that there will be no advanced technology, I have to make sure to tell them that there are electric lights on, right up front. If you let your reader fall into an unwarranted set of assumptions and expectations by not guiding them sufficiently at the beginning, then the presence of the unexpected will disappoint rather than excite them. Brian mentioned that this can be a particular issue with stories in which the author doesn't make specific the gender of a first-person narrator.

Another issue that came up is where to put your focus as an author - and this is where "show, don't tell" comes in. Some elements of the world are simple to show, and others are far more complex. Relevance is also an important consideration. If you have an important social issue that is integral to the progress of the plot, then typically you'll want to take the time to place readers close to it and observe it in action, or "show." On the other hand, if it's something like the fact that all the undercaste people in Varin wear hoods to mark their status, that's something you'll want to spend less time doing. Don't show a hooded person here, and one there, and make readers work to draw the conclusion for something so simple. If it comes up, show a hooded person and have your character remark on how that is the undercaste mark. A quick little "tell" and you're good to go, and so is your reader. If you have your reader spend a lot of time deducing things that are ultimately trivial in terms of the story's plot, they will likely be irritated with you. As Janet said, "certain information isn't worth a whole sentence."

There's a certain process of instruction you can develop to introduce key world concepts. The first goal is to get them noticed - to "hang a light" or "stick a flag" on them and include some very brief explanation (by brief I mean two or three words if possible) in a subordinate clause. Thereafter the flag will be the first thing the reader thinks of when the feature appears, and you can if necessary spend more time exploring other aspects of it, gradually expanding the reader's knowledge until all the connotations have been covered in characters' reactions, etc. and the reader knows how to react along with the character.

Kyle says that every story's beginning is a promise to the reader about what they will experience going forward - I agree, and have been known to call it a "contract." Either way, you want to make sure your promises and contracts are being carried out properly. Jaleh remarked that she felt the world exposition in the Valdemar books was really well done and allowed the world to expand gradually. Kyle also had good things to say about the Pern books in this regard, particularly their eventual blossoming into science fictional territory.

It's important that the things you show your reader make sense in context. This is one reason why you don't want to start out showing something very unusual - because you haven't got enough established context for readers to assess its significance. For "difficult" discoveries anywhere in your story, and for places where expectations are violated, you want to make sure that you treat them carefully so that readers can tell you've thought this through. I particularly like to encourage an "on the ground" feeling in my narratives and each event must grow out of that, rather than feeling slapped on by the author.

Kyle mentioned that Berthold Brecht had the exact opposite opinion, that he would deliberately put things in the story to knock readers out and made them think. Well, ok - so it can be done. But it's not necessarily the right choice for most people.

I mentioned a strange spot in the book Watership Down, where the buck rabbits are discussing the two new does who have just joined the warren, after being liberated from a nearby farm. One buck asks another, "Are they any good?" meaning, "Are they able to bear litters?" And the author then explains to the reader why it makes sense for the rabbits to be thinking this. My own impression was that the explanation was unnecessary. We've seen a lot of things at that point in the story to show us that rabbits don't think like people do, and the odd thing that happened with the explanation provided was that it ended up sounding more human-sexist than the original rabbit comment did in context. Remember that the context you create, once established, requires a lot less energy and effort to maintain than it does to create it in the first place.

The character serves as an anchor, but also as a guide to the emotional and cultural context of the story. Use them as such. They must have a psychology that makes sense in the story's context, and which is integrated with it. Characters can show a reader when it's okay for them to be ignorant about something in the world, or satisfied with questions, or burning with desire to learn. If a character is in denial, that can be exceedingly useful too, as a gauge of general world attitudes.

Of course, not everyone has the same thresholds for being kicked out of a story. Maybe one person will have trouble following a protagonist who isn't likeable, or another person may not be able to read a story because it deals with things that trigger severe anxiety. We can't guarantee everyone a pleasurable experience without making our stories bland. However, it's worth putting some effort into watching out for focus issues and the integration of world, culture and character so our stories can be more successful.

Thank you to everyone who came to the discussion! I look forward to seeing you again, and hope to meet more folks in the future.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Link: English text highlighted by etymological origin

My friend Pat McEwen put me onto this terrific article. Mike Kinde has created a program that highlights English text in color indicating the word's etymological origin, and you'd be amazed at how colorful a paragraph can be! What fun... check it out!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

TTYU Retro: The Importance of Pathos

I confess I have a tender spot in my heart for a pathetic character. When we hear the word "pathetic" these days, it's usually derogatory - as in, "Oh, that was pathetic," or "What a pathetic attempt that was." But that's not a definition that fits with the original concept behind "pathetic," which is pathos.

Wikipedia says (warning: this will be heavy, but the discussion afterward will not!):

Pathos (pronounced /ˈpeɪθɒs/ or /ˈpeɪθoʊs/; Greek: πάθος, for "suffering" or "experience;" adjectival form: 'pathetic' from παθητικός) represents an appeal to the audience's emotions. Pathos is a communication technique used most often in rhetoric (where it is considered one of the three modes of persuasion, alongside ethos and logos), and in literature, film and other narrative art.
Emotional appeal can be accomplished in a multitude of ways:
  • by a metaphor or story telling, common as a hook,
  • by a general passion in the delivery and an overall emotion and sympathies of the speech or writing as determined by the audience. The pathos of a speech or writing is only ultimately determined by the hearers.
Pathos is often associated with emotions, but it is more complex than simply emotions. A better equivalent might be appeal to the audience's sympathies and imagination. An appeal to pathos causes an audience not just to respond emotionally but to identify with the writer's point of view - to feel what the writer feels. So, when used in tragedy, pathos evokes a meaning implicit in the verb 'to suffer' - to feel pain imaginatively or vicariously. Pathos is often employed with tragedies and this is why pathos often carries this negative emotional connotation. Perhaps the most common way of conveying a pathetic appeal is through narrative or story, which can turn the abstractions of logic into something palpable and present. The values, beliefs, and understandings of the writer are implicit in the story and conveyed imaginatively to the reader. Pathos thus refers to both the emotional and the imaginative impact of the message on an audience, the power with which the writer's message moves the audience to decision or action.

Whew! But I bet you know a lot of characters who make an appeal to our emotions. Possibly the best known is C3PO, from Star Wars. He goes through the whole sequence of IV V and VI doing what he needs to do, all the while saying things like "We're doomed!" and always expecting the worst. Other pathetic characters include Eeyore, from A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh books, Dory from Finding Nemo and Puddleglum the Marshwiggle from C.S. Lewis' book The Silver Chair.

Interestingly, these characters are not cynics, nor are they pessimists (who can be spiteful). They simply feel suffering and expect to have to endure. They feel a certain gloom about their prospects and lament the deterioration of the situation, but they are extremely grateful when things turn out well.

When you're putting together a story, it's worthwhile to consider whether any of your characters have aspects of pathos. Pathos can be a hugely strong draw for a character who would otherwise be unrelatable (see my earlier post on likeable characters here). That points of course to antagonists, but also to others. My friend Josephine pointed out the character of William Randolph Hearst in The Aviator as someone who was fascinating because of the extent of his suffering, even when his behavior in general was off the charts and hard to relate to. My own character Nekantor from "The Eminence's Match" is a "twisted piece of work" to quote my author friend Lillian Csernica (she notes that she meant this in a positive way!). He does cruel and evil things but is motivated at least partially by his own obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I can't leave the topic of pathos without discussing Star Wars again - specifically, the fact that there were no pathetic characters in I-II-III that I could identify. Even C3PO had lost his pathetic outlook and turned into a kind of one-line fall guy. I can't watch those movies without thinking how differently Jar Jar Binks would have turned out if they'd actually allowed him to be pathetic instead of just goofy. Think about it - banished for being clumsy! If the movie hadn't just dropped that backstory by the wayside and it had actually made Jar Jar a bit more hangdog - a person who tries not to be clumsy but causes trouble inadvertently and suffers terrible guilt as a result - it would have made a big difference for the film, in my opinion. Think about how Dory came across because of her lack of memory. If she hadn't been pathetic, it would have been awful - instead, she was transcendent (in my opinion!).

What about your writing? Is there anyone whom you would describe as pathetic? Is there any character who might benefit from having pathetic elements added to his/her character?

It's something to think about.