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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Some thoughts on stars...

Stars in the sky. They've been around a long time, and been used for many different things by different peoples. Navigation has always been one of their big functions (yay, Polaris!). I also think immediately of the Greek constellations which still remain part of our culture today. That's pretty impressive staying power, and it's clear to me that whatever society is first to assign a categorization system to something can retain great influence in the way that thing is represented by other groups (for a very long time!). I should also mention the Southern Cross, which features on my husband's native flag. I've seen it from the Southern Hemisphere - and boy, is it a kick to see Orion upside-down!

The other day, stars in the sky featured prominently in the Curious George cartoon show. George went to the country and became so fascinated by the stars that he tried to count them all. This involved him falling asleep counting multiple nights in a row, until he found a constellation he could use to keep track of which regions he was counting. (I wouldn't have had the heart to tell him it was hopeless, would you?) The interesting part for me was when he went back to the city and tried to count, he couldn't see the stars at all until a citywide blackout occurred. Something about that episode had a beautiful, personal quality for me. It's not just about whether the stars are there, or about teaching that cities have a lot of light that obscures the stars - it also had George being sad that he couldn't see the stars that were his friends. Perhaps it's a little like my own feeling of oddity when I see Betelgeuse below Orion's belt: it situates me in the world.

My Varin world is underground, but when I first wrote about it, I had people swearing by the heavens. Then I went back and said, Hey! One possibility would have been to suggest that they swear by something else. Some of the locals, I decided, do swear by the Pit of Darkness. But instead of "fixing," I decided that the heavens connection should suggest something about the history of the Varin people: that they had once known the stars, but lost them when the society moved underground. From such a simple "error" an entirely new dimension of history and worldbuilding was born, and I'm glad of it.

Here's to the stars.

Monday, September 29, 2008


This morning I told my daughter I'd mentioned her on the forums, discussing the comic books that we just bought for her and her brother (Supergirl and Spiderman, respectively), and she suggested that I should mention her new pajamas. So here I am.

There's actually more in sleepwear as a topic than you might think (there always is). Do people dress for bed? Or do they undress for bed? Do they wear hats in bed (remember The Night Before Christmas?) to keep from being cold? Or would sleepwear be considered a waste of money because it's a piece of clothing no one but the family sees?

Actually, this is not true, as my daughter just wore her new pajama top to preschool. It's purple with black trim, an image of a black kitten on a broomstick, and the words "Spooky but Sweet."

This brings me to color and gender.

As we were walking up to the store, my son was saying he wanted Spiderman pj's, and we were joking with him, suggesting that he get bright pink with orange flowers and purple stripes - he said that would be girly (he's learned that, but not from me!), but actually I don't think even my daughter would want to wear something with that design. I suggested maybe it was just "too much." My husband mentioned fairies and we collectively bemoaned the fact that so few people in this world know about the cool and awesome male fairies that are out there. (Don't get me started on Disney Princesses, a good few of whom aren't even princesses but are still trying to take over the world of small females.)

When you think about it, gender assignment of colors etc. is a lot like manners. If you ask someone what they would say in a polite social situation, they will tend to tell you what they believe they should say, rather than what they would actually say. And if you ask people which colors, or symbols, go with which gender, they'll have very clear ideas. Fortunately, if you look out into the world beyond clothes-and-toys-marketing-for-children, you'll soon realize there's a lot more nuance out there than you think. Even Disney has to bow to the fact that the market is not all for pink and purple - which is why I was able some time ago to find my daughter some Lilo pajamas which were turquoise and orange and absolutely gorgeous.

Don't get me wrong - I love pink and purple myself. But at least for our family, love of the color purple transcends all boundaries. All four of us love it.

Thanks, with hugs, to Nonny for suggesting the topic.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Will humans ever outgrow spoken language?

I suspect it would take something pretty drastic.

Humans have language built into their DNA. Steven Pinker talks about the "language instinct", and while I might disagree with him on fine points, there's definitely something built into us.

Even profoundly deaf babies will begin to babble at the same age as hearing children - the difference is that without the ability to hear spoken language around them, they soon stop vocal babbling. When they're with adult speakers of sign language, though, they start babbling with their fingers! And of course this then develops into full-fledged sign language as the children mature.

In the case of pidgin languages, or languages that come to be used by people of different language groups when they are forced together by circumstance (like Russian-Japanese pidgin, for example), the pidgin itself will have a small vocabulary and rudimentary grammatical system - but once a second generation is born in this language community, the language gets fleshed out by the children and becomes a creole language.

There's something about people - they always want things to mean something. They may not always categorize concepts or objects the same way, but they will categorize. And once categories are fixed, people will automatically try to assign unknown things to known categories. There's a logic to this. If there were no prototypical concept for "apple," then how would we be able to recognize all the different types of apples, and know to eat them? Think of the vast variation in the concept for "dog."

So take a hypothetical situation where people become telepathic suddenly. Will they stop speaking aloud? If the telepathy is effective enough, this seems possible. Will they stop thinking in terms of auditory and visual signals? That's tougher. If the telepathy simply involves the ability to transmit signals directly from one brain to another, I think it would be very likely that the brain would interpret those signals in terms of auditory or visual signals, because those pathways are already primed and have meaning. I struggle to imagine a way that the telepathy would not make use of preexisting patterns of brain activity, especially if it were to be such an effective means of communication that it would supplant spoken language.

Telepathy also has its drawbacks, because I'm not sure if it would be as widely usable in communication with objects, as with programming computers or auto-open doors or other similar technologies. How would you design a receiver for telepathic signals? Or would you rely on written symbols for such communication? The written word is always the slowest to change, as evidenced by the peculiarities of English spelling. We've got letters in the word "knight" that have been around for hundreds of years, long after the sounds they once corresponded to have disappeared.

In language as in technology, there is a tendency for very ancient patterns to persist once they have optimally matured. I would expect that the ancient elements might be difficult for "current" users to distinguish from more recent ones, but I suspect they would still be there, even a thousand or more years into the future.

Thanks to Dave Steffen, known on the forums as steffenwulf/steffenwolf, for suggesting this topic. He blogs at

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Sparrow: A Ridiculously Close Look

I've been meaning for the last week to get back to looking at narrators, so today I'll do a short entry on the opening of Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow. Fascinating book. One of the things that always surprised me about it was the omniscient narration. I think I was sensitized to it by the fact that I'd begun writing tight third person narrators, and kept expecting to find them all around. But the omniscient narration in this book is well done.

I'll start with the first sentence, the way I did with my last post, because an opening has to tell so much about what is to follow:

"It was predictable, in hindsight."

The first thing I notice is that this is not a personal sentence. This sentence isn't giving us a person to relate to, because it has no content pronouns at all, only the word "it" which refers obliquely to a situation.

On the other hand, "it was predictable" does imply a narrator - because it expresses an opinion, and therefore must involve someone to opine. This someone is left deliberately absent, so we have to wait for further information to identify where the opinion comes from.

"In hindsight" also implies a narrator, because it also expresses judgment. Judgment is something that does not require POV pronouns, but can be used well in something as simple as this five-word sentence.

Look, too, at the juxtaposition. "Predictable, in hindsight." Something was predictable, perhaps even should have been predicted, but since we are "in hindsight", obviously it was not. What does this give us? Curiosity, of course. A desire to read the next sentence, which is this:

"Everything about the history of the Society of Jesus bespoke deft and efficient action, exploration and research."

I don't want to discuss every word on this one, but I will note a few things. First off, this sentence depends crucially on the one before it. If we didn't know that there was some event, predictable but not really predicted, this would make less sense and do less to draw us in. But since we do know, we can gather here that the event in question also involved deft and efficient action, exploration and research.

We can gather from the brevity of the phrase "everything about the history of" that the history itself is not relevant, but that if we were to ask, it would serve to support the narrator's contention that the Society has a tendency toward the aforementioned deft action, etc.

The last things I'll point out are the words "Society of Jesus" and "bespoke". They do fit together well. Bespoke to me has a distinct biblical feel, particularly when it accompanies Society of Jesus (without that phrase I might accidentally interpret it as the particular type of telepathy used by Ursula LeGuin).

Also, I'll point out that the word "Jesuit" doesn't appear in the book until sentence number three. Since that word is probably more commonly known to the general population, why wouldn't she use it first? Well, because in saying "Society of Jesus," which is what the Jesuits call themselves, she gestures toward their point of view. The story itself is about a group of Jesuits who go to another planet, about their judgments and the consequences thereof. So the implication here is entirely appropriate to set up reader expectations.

Even when you're in a third person omniscient, point of view never goes away. Don't forget that even tiny alterations in choice of words can tell you a whole lot about what's coming.

I'm back!

I hooked up my new DSL this morning because the cable company - friendly and helpful as their representatives were in person - was just plain unable to fix my service reliably. A half-hour of internet here and another there wasn't doing it for me. Just hooked up at 9 this morning.

I would just like to say an initial thanks to all of you who have visited faithfully this week despite my silence. You help me feel like I'm not writing alone in a small locked room, and I appreciate you.

More soon...


Saturday, September 20, 2008

Further internet difficulties

Just a note to say that I'm having more problems with my internet service, so if you suddenly don't see a post from me for a few days, chalk it up to that. I'm going to do my best to keep up, and to get the problem resolved. Sigh.

More soon...

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Sense of Time

Are you one of those kinds of people who can't go anywhere without a watch? My husband is; I used to be that way, until I lost my watch once. Then I realized that if you're looking around, you can almost always find a clock somewhere. Of course, this may put you in the situation where you can't find one and you have to ask someone for the time. As I'm not shy, that's not really a problem.

The sense of time changes over the course of one's life. I remember feeling like a class I disliked in elementary school was going to last forever. Now I can guess pretty accurately when five or ten or twenty minutes have gone by. I've even heard that this has been studied scientifically, and it really does change.

It's not only the internal clock that gives you a sense of time, though. It's events. This is where you can start putting on the worldbuilding glasses if you like. I spent so long listening to school bells that I still get an adrenaline rush when I hear the bells at my son's school and feel I might be late. School years versus summers have always divided my life, because my parents work in the university setting. A working life, though, perhaps that's measured differently. Holidays mark time in our lives. Birthdays. Once I was an adult, though, I found that it became harder to remember which gift came from a year ago, and which from three years ago. Gee, I thought, time is running together!

And then I had kids.

Kids change your sense of time like nothing I've ever experienced. When my son was born he used to nurse for 45 minutes every two hours, twenty-four hours a day. For a straight month, there was no day and no night, only this endless sequence of feedings and attempts at sleep. I had to restart everything. Once I had day and night again, I found that minutes would creep by. I'd struggle to get through the last ten minutes before my husband got home, for example. Hours would feel interminable. Yet at the same time, the weeks would fly by. It's that funny feeling where you're so busy you can hardly breathe, but at the end of the day you can't really identify a single thing you did.

The clock-style life is treated differently by different groups (the California party-goers who are always half an hour late, the BART trains which are usually within 2-3 minutes of on time, the Japanese trains which run brutally on time and some of which come every 45 seconds during rush hour, etc.). But it's not the only one. I think about farming families who used to wake with the sun and go to sleep with it, and whose years are measured by temperature, frost and season.

There are also different ways of measuring time. This whole clock thing is convenient, but the clock, and its "clockwise" - turning hands were decided upon by consensus at one point. In ancient Japan they didn't use the same hours we do, but would measure time according to slightly larger blocks named for animals - "the hour of the ox", for example. So when you're designing your world, don't feel you're restricted. Pick a cultural and environmental reason for the way your people measure time.

Wikipedia has a great entry ("Second") which links the current measurement of our seconds to fluctuations in the element cesium. I once decided to create a time measurement system that was influenced by binary calculations, with 64 seconds in a minute and 64 minutes in an hour, all of that measured on the basis of the observable movement of a nearby star.

There are lots of options, but for now I'm out of time. :-)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Look at me when I'm talking to you!

Today I have to take my cat to the vet, long-distance, so this will be a brief entry.

I'm thinking about eye gaze.

With all the child-rearing that I'm currently involved in, I meet a lot of different kids, and one thing I notice is the way that parents teach their children where to look. This happens both explicitly, as when parents insist that their children look them in the eye in a punishment situation, and inexplictly, through demonstration and observation.

I urge you never to underestimate a child's natural powers of observation. I think they must be adaptively selected for keenness when it comes to cues about emotion in adults; once the brain develops enough to grasp social cues of this nature, around age 9 months, watch out!

Adults are pretty good at this, too. Think about how much of the time you look around to see what someone is looking at - and then think about how certain you are of your judgment. It's amazing what a human being can deduce from of the tiniest motion of a pair of eyes. Is he looking at me? Is he meeting my eyes? Why does he keep looking at the door? Is he preoccupied with that stone in his hand?

Culturally speaking, different groups associate different meanings with the placement of eye gaze. I find that typically in American conversation, the listener is expected to maintain eye gaze on the speaker's face, while the speaker makes direct eye contact regularly but not continuously so as not to appear too forceful. In Japan, direct eye gaze can be considered an affront. My friend Sheryl yesterday was remarking that an Asian friend of hers accompanied her to dinner with a pair of her friends who were married, and did not make eye contact with the married woman through most of the meal - something that this woman noticed and felt odd about at the time, but which was later explained as a distinct cultural gesture of politeness. In a way it makes perfect sense: why would you ogle someone else's wife? Of course, this depends on how ogling is defined in your culture...

As you move into your created worlds, it's worth giving thought to how people watch one another in different contexts. Watching for social signals is very important - but clearly people can have very strict rules about what, and when, to watch. It can also be used very well as a physical decription to break up dialogue, and description of what a person is looking at at any given time can play an important role in point of view.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Phedre no Delaunay: a Ridiculously Close Look

I've been talking a lot here about how people tend to speak and act in accordance with their histories, their culture and their language background. As a person who has always been somewhat frustrated to hear intangible things described on a general level, I thought it was about time for me to take this discussion to the level of words. So what I'm going to do is take a sample of a character's point of view and tell you why I think it works the way it does. In ridiculously close detail.

One of the nice things about real human discourse, i.e. the way people talk under normal circumstances, is that people can't stop representing themselves as they speak. They may try to influence that representation one way or another, but you can take almost any sample of recorded speech and pull meanings out of it.

My immediate thought: shouldn't the representation of a character's point of view be as rich, and as full of hints about background, world, and attitude? Well, it sure can be. I think this is what they call narrative voice.

Let's take a look at the character of Phedre no Delaunay, from Jacqueline Carey's novel Kushiel's Dart. I'll just start where her voice starts and give you a few analytical musings.

"Lest anyone should suppose that I am a cuckoo's child, got on the wrong side of a blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a shortfallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me."

This is awesome in terms of multi-layering. It's effectively a statement saying "This is who I am." Not much, right? But it's so much more.

First word: "Lest". This already places us in a particular type of environment, with historical/classic overtones. Add to this the use of "got" for "conceived," and the appearance of the words "peasant," and "shortfallen season." These are uses of dialect to place the protagonist in a historical setting, specifically one where there there are peasants working the land. That's pretty precise already, for never having said anything explicitly about the historical time period. These dialectal words also place the protagonist as a member of the culture in this time period, as opposed to someone observing it from the outside. Maybe even implies that she's a bit earthy, to be talking about the circumstances of her conception with such gusto. (Earthy doesn't begin to describe it, of course.)

Next: "cuckoo's child." This phrase places us pretty solidly on earth, because though there might be birds roughly translatable as cuckoos elsewhere, the metaphor drawn from the way the cuckoo places its egg in another bird's nest is uniquely earthly, and also historical. (As is the associated "cuckold.")

Next: "House-born." The idea of a great House is one that many people are familiar with, and it has appeared in many SF/F contexts, but it does reliably suggest nobility of some kind (an unusual kind, in this case), a keen sense of pride in breeding in the protagonist, and the importance of lineage in the culture surrounding her. Since the association with nobility is so strong, Carey does well to follow this with:

"and reared in the Night Court proper." This phrase immediately answers the question of what kind of nobility we're looking at - her choice to use the word "the" suggests that the Night Court is both unique and well-known to our protagonist, while the word "Night" rouses curiosity. What could the Night Court be? How can I find out? (Keep reading, of course.) Establishing curiosity is one of the most important things an author can do in the first paragraph of a book.

Okay, so far so good. Let's look at some of the larger constructions in the sentence.

"Lest anyone should suppose..." For this one I'm less concerned with "lest" and much more with "suppose." To use a phrasing like this implies that whoever this protagonist is, there is a distinct possibility that someone actually might suppose that she's "a cuckoo's child." Otherwise, she wouldn't even mention it. Funny how the denial of a thing admits that it is a possibility.

Next: "sold into indenture" If this phrase were less specific, we might be inclined to think that something bad happened to Phedre but that we're looking at a metaphor for her unfortunate status. But "sold into indenture" is so specific that I think we can reasonably assume from this alone that she actually has been sold into indenture. Another big source of curiosity, at least for me. I shake my head and say, "She got sold into indenture? How?" And I keep turning pages.

Finally (but not exhaustively!): "for all the good it did me." Love this. It says "I have good breeding and noble upbringing but despite this I'm in big trouble." And what is more compelling than an interesting (not to mention attractive), well-grounded protagonist in trouble?

So in one single sentence Carey has given us:
1. historical setting
2. culture of protagonist
3. attitude of protagonist toward: nobility, breeding, sex, servitude
4. current employment of protagonist
5. sense of urgency (being in trouble)
6. curiosity, curiosity, curiosity

It's no wonder I was hooked.

Politics, Religion, and Pets

My friend Ann Wilkes was telling me recently that she never blogs about three topics if she can help it: politics, religion, and pets. I agreed with her, and then realized when you're doing a blog like this one, the topics are fair game - the only trick is not to localize them. So today for fun I'm going to share a couple of my thoughts on politics, religion, and pets (thanks, Ann!).

Why are there so many dictatorships in SF/F? Maybe it has to do with the prevalence of medieval cultural models. I'm certainly not immune - I've come up with some of these types of societies. But the ones I think are more interesting are ones where the authors have really delved into what a monarchy means and how it influences society, or ones where monarchy is only one of the options in the world. I like Jacqueline Carey's fantasy Europe, for example, because she maintains differences in governments that parallel the those of the nations she's fantasizing. And of course I like Ursula LeGuin's approach. The Left Hand of Darkness has two major models, one a monarchy and the other a "commensality" that feels a lot like a communist state. In her Earthsea books she has multiple different types of governments depending on their location in the archipelago. If you're designing a society yourself, I encourage you to ask yourself why the rich are rich, and how they get their money. There are a lot more options out there than one.

I usually think of religion in created worlds as a tool. A really, really useful one too. It helps you figure out how people swear (or not). It helps you figure out what kind of activities are taboo. It also helps to link people with their local climate and means of feeding themselves. Even more importantly, I think, it helps you figure out some really basic metaphors that people use to understand their world - because religion is full of symbols. Unity. Duality. Trinity. Multiplicity - it all depends on where you look. You can have a group of gods who bicker like family. Or two groups of warring gods. Or an omnipotent God who is tyrannical, or one who is merciful, and that difference will completely change how his/her/its followers think. Does life end with going to heaven? What do you have to do to get there? Are you looking forward to being sacrificed on the altar? My friend Aliette de Bodard had a great moment in one of her pieces where a person headed off to be sacrificed (rather gruesomely, I might add) was impatient with the protagonists for blocking his way. That is one of the kinds of moments that you always remember. Be it fantasy or science fiction, the more people act in accordance with their localized world view, the more I love it.

I actually had a funny moment recently where I had to figure out if members of an alien society I was designing kept pets. The part that made it hard was, these guys are carnivores. I thought at first, why would they keep pets and not eat them? But on the other hand, they're social creatures; they might well keep pets to combat loneliness, for example. People do keep pet rabbits even in places where they are regularly eaten. So the final result was, I decided that some of them might keep pets.

Then there was yesterday, when my kids got their National Geographic Kids magazine and we were reading snippets about amazing cats (part of their Halloween themed issue). My daughter loved it, and so did my son - different cats, for different reasons. Animals are so much a part of our consciousness, even if they're not a part of our daily lives, that the first words we learn in children's books are things like "cow," "horse," "bear," "lion," etc. The list goes on and on, though we may never see these creatures in the wild in our entire lives. What, then, would be the significance of animals to a fantasy or alien group? What kind of behavior would be associated with each? Would fantasy people automatically say that foxes are crafty and snakes loathsome and sneaky, just as we do? I'm not sure.

It's something to think about.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Feel of a Language

I've had lots of occasions lately to notice the different way that languages feel. My kids have been learning a bit of French, and there's always some Japanese floating around my house, and often enough I find myself commenting on other linguistic sources, like when I'm reading my son's dinosaur book and come across Tuojiangosaurus. To him it's a dinosaur name that's tricky to say. To me, it screams "Chinese!"

Part of the feel of a language comes from its inventory of sounds. In German, the very existence of sounds like the "ch" in "ich" changes the feel of the language, where in Chinese you get sound combinations, complex syllables, and tones to boot. But if you look at just the sound inventory for a language you can miss things, because some languages have similar inventories - like, for example, Spanish and Japanese. When I was living in a foreigners' dormitory in Tokyo with 360 students from 60 different countries, we all noticed there was a certain advantage for the Spanish speakers in pronunciation. Still, sounds alone aren't enough.

Intonation is a huge part of the feel of language - a part that I don't see described in fiction as often as I'd like.

English has syllable stress, where one syllable of a word tends to be louder and higher in pitch than the others; this influences things like the aspiration of consonants, which is when a sound like "t" is followed by extra exhalation almost like "h." It also makes for all the metrical patterns we see in poetry, and changes the feel of a sentence drastically. I know I'm always looking out for a good metrical feel when I write, even though I don't count out syllables when I do it. It influences what they call "flow."

Neither French nor Japanese has syllable stress. I haven't studied French intonation in as much depth as Japanese, but effectively, in French there isn't any syllable that sticks out in both loudness and pitch, though I do notice a slight rise in pitch at the ends of sentences. Japanese has a pattern of pitch accent which means that there's no difference in loudness, but each syllable (mora, for sticklers) has a pitch value which is relatively higher or lower, so that the speech tends to flow along, alternating between the two.

Here's an interesting trivia tidbit about English speakers learning French and Japanese: even when they're able to produce all of the right sounds, they can have trouble taking the stress out of their speech. This makes for a rather interesting accent, because it's easy to tell that they don't sound native, but hard to pinpoint exactly the source of the issue because technically all the sounds are correct.

I know I've mentioned mouth shape before, but I'll mention it again. French to me is like calisthenics for the lips, because of the variability of the different sounds and mouth positions - and without that, it wouldn't sound as French. Japanese always feels to me like it should be uttered with a faint smile on the lips, because it has much less range in mouth position. Even the Japanese "u" is un-rounded. I literally used to get my Japanese classes to pronounce words better by asking them to "smile when you say that."

Then there are the intangibles. Where do I get the feeling that French and English are playful languages? Maybe from all the puns I've heard in each? I know I get a feeling that Japanese is a graceful language, but I don't ever get the same sense of playfulness. But maybe it's just because I've been in all the wrong language-speaking situations. I could easily imagine a situation where a language-learner thought the language had no humor, just because he'd never been in the right context to hear it.

Languages have such a vast range of use contexts that it's hard to capture them in their entirety. ESL teachers in the US know that it's perfectly possible for someone to be great at playground talk, but to struggle with English for academic purposes. I know from experience that having a good ear for accents and a lot of conversational experience isn't enough to make me feel comfortable when I need to get medical help in either France or Japan. That's a specialized area of vocabulary that I've hardly touched.

In Japanese you also have the issue of formal and casual language, which are used in different contexts. Because of the amount of formal language I've studied, I feel less comfortable using casual forms, and it has the odd effect of making me feel less comfortable speaking Japanese to my kids than French. I don't want to talk to my kids as if they're colleagues or fellow students! It just feels weird.

Those are my thoughts for this evening. I've decided to go ahead with my plan to take a closer look at some characters from books, and how they feel grounded in culture and belief systems. I've been putting together a pile of books, and I hope to get started with that in the next day or two.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Does my character believe in his own values?

Well, so the cable guy has been and gone, and I'm online again. What a relief!

Today's topic is "values" - a.k.a. ideology or belief systems - and how they show up in characters. This is a particular pet peeve of mine, for two reasons. First, I see far too many stories in which characters run true to type - that whole thing where a character is (for example) a dwarf, so he believes in all the things dwarves do and acts like a dwarf in every way. Second, I see many stories in which characters will posture their beliefs by declaring them, either aloud or in internalization. This is the type where an oppressed character will say a la Monty Python, "Help! Help! I'm being repressed!" (In fact, dougsha mentioned this when I last talked about repressed characters.)

I had this moment while reading the Lord of the Rings, where I'd gotten through Fellowship and started into The Two Towers, and suddenly I felt like I'd seen Tolkien learn something - dare I say, much in the way I learn things as I continue to write in a world. In The Two Towers, Legolas goes beyond just acting his role in the main plot, and starts to make occasional offhand comments about what babies Gimli and Aragorn are. Have you ever noticed this? Suddenly he stops being a plot-contributor in the body of an elf, and starts dropping hints that yes, he really has been alive since the beginning of time!

When you believe in something, you don't usually go around declaring it to everyone you know, but what you believe shows in everything you do, like the diet you eat, or the way you treat objects, and how you define categories of people around you. Belief systems can give a character more than something to say. They can give him or her a way of moving. Of dressing. Of speaking. A belief system very often provides a set of metaphors by which that person understands everything in the world around.

Religion is only the obvious example. There are also cultural value sets - and when you're designing your world, don't forget that a population can contain multiple cultural groups, or that within cultural groups, people can enact their beliefs in different ways. They can even oppose the predominant model of their cultural group, like a man who wants to start a liberating revolution. But even as he opposes the value system, he will still think in its terms, using its metaphors, and accepting some of its basic assumptions while he rejects others.

I'm out of time for this morning, but this has given me some ideas of where to go next. Let me know if you have a favorite SF character who comes across as really grounded, because I'm thinking of taking on some examples and breaking them down.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Note to my visitors...

I am preparing more posts, but today I have been having difficulty with intermittent internet service, and as yet I'm not sure how bad it's going to get. Trying to slip this through the wire while it's still working. :-(

Cable experts are due to appear here tomorrow...

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

"Show, Don't Tell" - Exposed!

I've been warning you this was coming... The whole idea of "show, don't tell" was something that had been bothering me for a while, as many of you probably saw on the forums. Well, after asking the question and hearing all kinds of interesting answers, I thought I'd just put this all into one super-mega-post. You all contributed. Take your time - I think it should be worth it.

Show Don't Tell, Exposed

"Show, Don't Tell" is clearly a phrase that a lot of people have heard, and I'd guess most of those have done some work on trying to apply it usefully to their own writing. This is not always easy, however, and (like me) not everybody considers the phrase helpful, because it takes a lot of complex, rend-my-paragraphs information and extrapolates it into a beautifully phrased general principle.

This may be harder to apply to one's writing.

Greg Ellis of the Analog forum wrote,
I can hear Yoda in the back of my mind right now.
Try? Try? Do, or do not.
There is no try.

And then there was Josh, from Backspace:
It's like telling someone how to ride a bike: a person needs to try to do it if they want to learn.

So it's a beautiful principle that I need to figure out by doing it rather than hearing about it?
How do I know if I'm doing this right? Okay, let's try the ultimate source of knowledge and wisdom...


"Show, don't tell" is an admonition to fiction writers to write in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character's action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator's exposition, summarization, and description.
Janet Evanovich: ". . . instead of stating a situation flat out, you want to let the reader discover what you're trying to say by watching a character in action and by listening to his dialogue. Showing brings your characters to life." [1]
Orson Scott Card: ...objective is to get the right balance of telling versus showing, action versus summarization. Either could be right; either could be wrong. Factors like rhythm, pace, and tone come into play. [4]

Showing can be done by:

* writing scenes
* describing the actions of the characters
* revealing character through dialogue
* using the five senses when possible

James Scott Bell: "Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won't, and your readers will get exhausted."[7].

The experts have spoken, and they've said first, that telling is basically giving narrative summary, and second, that showing is dramatizing a scene with action, dialog, and sensory information. They have also said that you can't show all the time, that you have to know when to do it and when not to do it.

Clearly, "Show, Don't Tell" is to be taken with several grains of salt, and applied when it's needed, and not when it's not. Here's what I heard about it on the forums:

RALovett of Analog Forum wrote:
I just read a mainstream novel in which the author rigorously showed everything, and the result was a whole book in which precious little of import actually happened.

damiengwalter of Asimov's forum wrote:
I've noticed a lot of writers, particularly those who write novels over short stories, refer to 'show don't tell' as using scene and dialogue instead of narrative voice. IMHO that advice is not very helpful. Narrative voice is pretty essential in a good story, and trying to stick to this idea of 'show don't tell' is a mistake.

Okay, now I have a problem. Because obviously I have to "show, don't tell," but at the same time I have to know when to show, and when to tell, and I bet you any money that readers will be able to tell if I haven't figured it out naturally! Before my head explodes, I think I'll take a step back.

One thing to do is to go and read a pile of books, to look at how others have done it. But as you may already have guessed, I've done that two or three or ten times... The good news is, I think at this point I've figured out "show, don't tell" - but what I haven't figured out is why it stays alive, and is used so often - and more importantly, how to give helpful critique about these issues without using a phrase that so often seems meaningless.

So this whole forum exploration was intended to take all the advice I've heard in a different direction. I asked in four different online forums frequented by writers: Analog Forum, Asimov's Forum, Backspace Writers' Forum, and SFF Chronicles forum (links provided at the end!), to see what people had to say about what "show, don't tell" meant to them. [Note: two Backspace writers asked me to take down their quoted comments. Sorry for the error.]

I came up with four (four!) different meanings.
1. Showing is dramatization, and telling is descriptive summary
2. Showing is story action, and telling is backstory or worldbuilding infodump
3. Showing is using a limited or internal point of view, and telling is using an omniscient or
external point of view
4. Showing is making the reader think, and telling is not making the reader think

Now, let's break 'em down, one at a time.


This is the primary opinion of Wikipedia, and a lot of people at the forums agreed.

Sam Wilson of Asimov's forum wrote:
I think showing happens in realtime and telling is a sort of narrative summary. Both are effective in their place. I got some good advice from a pro once: ration author commentary.

Marian of Analog forum wrote:
In my critique group, I usually say that this paragraph could be a scene (or should be a scene) instead of a description.

Okay, so it seems to me that advice is pretty clear. Instead of saying "John got even with Mary," send him into a scene that shows him achieving this comeuppance. Of course, there are potential hazards involved in showing of this nature, because dramatizing a scene requires the author to pin down a lot of factual and setting details about what happens in it.

As Marian of Asimov's forum wrote,
...that's why novices tell instead of showing. If they just say "One night Harry sneaked into George's house and murdered him" they don't run the risk of getting dinged on errors. Of course they do risk getting dinged on being very boring.

Mike Flynn of Analog forum gave an interesting example:
"Father and brother had a terrible row, and many terrible things were said that could not be unsaid, and in the end brother stormed out and I have not seen him since." This is probably more effective than if the author had tried to show the argument in process. What terrible things could he show being said? No matter what, it runs the risk of not being terrible enough to support the consequences.

I guess what that means is that you can go both ways on this piece of advice. Sometimes taking the reader into a scene is going to make for a better experience, but sometimes it isn't. I guess I have to come back later (below!) to figure out when one might be better than the other. For now, let's look at the second meaning for "show don't tell."


Any of us who have been exploring the world of science fiction and fantasy writing are familiar with the concept of the infodump. The author has some really vital information they have to get across about how the world works, or about a principle of physics which will be vital to a final understanding of the story, or about the main character's childhood which establishes the motivation that will carry him or her through the story, etc., etc. So they put it in. Maybe they write a paragraph about it, or worse, an entire page or more, losing track of the main storyline in the process.

Bill Gleason of the Analog forum described it beautifully:
I think with regard to SF, there's a particular kind of "stuff getting conflated" in the show-don't-tell advice, because in SF there is often the need to convey highly technical information. As has been noted elsewhere, this is why so much SF involves scientists as characters, since it is far more plausible when they drift into discussions of esoteric science than when, say, a couple of professional athletes do it. ... So there does seem to be an inherent challenge that is perhaps unique to SF writers in terms of fiction.

Yes, I can easily see how this one has gotten incorporated into "show don't tell." Here's what some other people were saying on the forums:

Zubi-Ondo of SFF Chronicles wrote:
I personally find myself falling into the "tell" mode when I'm still fleshing out some part of the story or action.

Well, all right. But is it really so bad to write down the things that people really need to know about a world? Here's why Tom Ligon of Analog forum says it's all right:

Telling is fine in a first draft. Go ahead and get the ideas down.

I've seen this a lot in my critiquing experience. The writer starts writing down tons and tons of stuff that's really really important to understanding the story - if you're the writer. Sure. Of course the writer has to understand this! But the reader doesn't necessarily need it. So get it down, learn what you need to, and then write the story as it needs to be written, which is a separate job. About "telling" in that context, Tom Ligon says,

"Telling" can be done well. ... The trouble is, it can be awfully dry and uninteresting if you're just laying out facts or some history. If people are involved, why not incorporate the facts into a personal experience?

Maybe in some sense this is a subset of number one, where we talked about dramatizing instead of summarizing. But dramatizing information isn't the best road, and it often turns into a situation where two people are talking and one is "telling" the other what he needs to know.

Greg Ellis of Analog forum wrote:
Conveying information in science fiction is sometimes, I think, critical to science fiction and sometimes there's just no other way to convey it other than in a "telling" manner (in my case it was a very descriptive scene between 2 scientists looking at the pathways involved - one a specialist in photosynthesis and plant biology, the other an experienced biologist in another field, several years away from his photosynthesis classes).

Zubi-Ondo of SFF Chronicles wrote:
One way to get away with "telling" is to have one of the characters explain something in dialogue. Again, if you do too much of that it will become transparent to the reader, and they will catch on.

And here was RALovett of the Analog forum:
There's also a huge amount of borderline in this whole show/tell arena, that most folks dismiss by stating an overly simple rule. Dialog, for example, is often cited as the epitome of "showing." But the words of the dialog themselves can also be the character "telling" something.

Infodumping is definitely something to watch out for, and I've talked about it in other places on the blog, so I'm not going to be offering lengthy suggestions here. I'm sure it will come up again.

On to the next meaning of "show don't tell":


This one really took me by surprise, I'm not sure why. Maybe I should have realized that "show don't tell" would be linked to the literal idea of "telling" a story. Here's how Mike Flynn of Analog forum put it:

When you can get away with telling[:] I think when the narrator is first person you can get away with this more than when the POV is third person. It may be that omniscient can get away with it, too, because the telling is part of the ambiance of the omniscient voice.
Okay, this is intriguing. When the narrator is first person, it's possible that this person can be cast as a person telling a story about past experiences, in which case that person is literally "telling" the story. In third person omniscient, it's similar - you've got a narrator "telling" a story, even though that story is about other people and not him/herself.

Tom Ligon of Analog forum takes the idea further:
American Indian legends are frequently "told". Just reading them can sometimes be a bit dry. But many of you will remember the opening to a SF TV series years ago which uses a tribal storyteller, and I have a print of a painting called "Buffalo Tales" hanging beside my writing desk that illustrates a storyteller and seven kids around a campfire. ... he is no doubt "telling" with great flare and expression, and the kids are digging it (each affected in a unique way). If you must "tell", try to tell it with a bit of flare.

Bill Moonroe of Asimov's forum added,
I suppose that sort of leaves each storyteller to make their mark via delivery; it's the difference between a gifted preacher telling the Christmas story, and, well, my Shakespearean teacher giving the sermon; one would bring tears to a moai's eyes while the other could put a tiger to sleep. But the use of show vs tell can be the difference between a new look, a new use of the power of myth in a new way and an academic's faithful yet lifeless transcription of ethnic folktales.

Surely, though, there's more to this than just oral delivery of the story in question. Storyteller narrators can be effective or ineffective. Why should that be? This question brings me to the last meaning I found for "show don't tell":


Vague from the Analog forum summed up this definition most succinctly, as follows:
If you 'tell' the reader too much you risk setting them at a distance; because you're interpreting things for them they don't need to think about what they're reading, coasting along, attention drifting.

RALovett from the Analog forum took it further, though, with a terrific example from "A River Runs Through It" by Norman Maclean:

The first few pages of that, available by google on the publisher's website are a classic example of how you can indeed get away with "telling" a story. The first paragraph:

"In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman."

Now, I would bet dollars to donuts (not as strong odds today as when I was a kid, admittedly) that a lot of writing groups would flag that as "telling," and advise the writer to show his father talking about the disciples. And I would also be quick to add that this is a book that you either love or can't get into at all. That's because what it's truly about is voice: Maclean's crotchety old-man voice looking back on his Montana childhood. So ultimately, it is showing, not telling, but it's showing the narrator, via the way he tells about Montana, and fishing, and etc.

Really what we're looking at here is a case of "telling" a story - but this kind of "telling" is actually "showing" something else at the same time. So while the reader is engaged in hearing about the narrator's father and his love of fly fishing, he's also learning about who the narrator is and how he thinks - critical information, as I noted above in the section about backstory and infodumping. So in a sense, here's one great way to incorporate backstory - telling a small piece of the backstory that is highly relevant to our understanding of the narratory himself.

Zubi-Ondo of SFF Chronicles wrote:
I consider the rule of show don't tell as part of a bigger rule which is "keep the reader engaged".

And here's one way of doing it: offer the reader more than just the "flat" story being told. Offer the reader a chance to engage in the narrative by constructing information about the narrator while listening to his story.

All of this reminds me of a class I took in college. It was a class about doing qualitative research, and in particular, about the principles behind anthropological field notes. I've heard people who are familiar with large-scale statistical studies say unkind things about anthropologists who go into situations and study them from the inside, but in fact, I found the entire process fascinating - and empirically solid.

The idea behind writing field notes is this. Don't say "there's tension in the room." If you do that, you'll be drawing conclusions from what you see, and writing them down, and people who read your notes will have to choose whether to believe you or not. On the other hand, if you write down what you see, the evidence for the sense of tension in the room (people pacing, wringing hands, sitting awkwardly etc.), then when a reader looks at your notes, that reader will be able to see what you saw and draw conclusions along with you.

I think that is in fact a lot of what's going on in "showing."

Okay, so we've got four different meanings. What can we get out of the whole process, to take forward into our writing in meaningful ways? After all, the rule of "show don't tell" still stands, but it still stands as something we should do sometimes, but not others, or we should do in one way, but not another.

Are we back where we started? No, I don't really think so.

RALovett of the Analog forum wrote:
... the core word to what I'm talking about is "priorities." Otherwise, you'll never get your character out the door.

Forgive me for being a linguistics geek (but it's what I am!) - all this sends me back to H.P. Grice's Cooperative principle, which I discussed in an earlier post. Today I'm going to take it and turn it into:

"Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged."

This is actually a direct quote from Grice 1975, via Wikipedia. If it seems obvious, then let me explain.

What we've been seeing up here is a situation where "telling" (of types 1 and 2 at least) is summary material that does not engage the reader's attention and effort as much as "showing." Excellent. But if as readers we're constantly required to engage at the same level of effort, then we'll become exhausted (and with some authors, we do!). So in a sense, dramatizing and "showing" is a way of indicating that a particular part of the story is important.

The more words you put on something, the more attention it requires from the reader. So the question then becomes, "is this where I want the reader to be placing their effort?"

If all the people in a room are wearing hoods to show their social status, for example - here I've got two pieces of information. I could "show" one person, then another, wearing hoods or doing things with them, so that the reader can conclude that everyone is wearing them. But why should I do that, when the fact of the hoods is less important to the story than what the hoods mean? This is a place where I would simply tell a reader about the hoods, and spend more time exploring their social status and what it means to them using various types of information including the hoods.

My friend Janice Hardy would probably say, "focus on the story." Identifying exactly what the story is can be tricky - it's that elusive thing that hooks us and draws us through, following characters through settings and situations of all sizes and shapes, because we CARE about them. So in the end the process of writing isn't much easier, because we still have to figure out which parts of what we write are vital to the story, so we know where we want to have people engaging, expending effort and attention.

But I hope this discussion has shed light on the topic of "show don't tell," and given you some useful approaches to the question in your own work, or the books you're reading.

Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Readers Forum:
Asimov's Science Fiction, Readers Forum:
SFF Chronicles forum:
Backspace, the Writers Place (paid registration):

Monday, September 8, 2008

Bow-wow, boom, smash: onomatopoeia

Today's entry will be a quick one, because I'm planning my entry for tomorrow on "show not tell" (also called "show don't tell"), and it's a complex one because I'm basing it on several forum discussions I've been having over the last few days. Hearing about others' experiences has shown me there are a lot more dimensions to the topic than I imagined.

Today I'm talking about sounds, written down.

Every so often there comes a time in a story when something happens - like a glass breaking on the floor, or a door slamming, or something like that, where it's so instantaneous the best way I can think to put it in is in a single line of onomatopoeia:


(often I'll alter the spelling for a more sound-effect-like feel)
Maybe you could call it the manga effect - I've always loved how comics write out their sound effects. Any of you who read manga might already realize that Japanese sound words aren't the same as ours. Each language has its own way of interpreting and transcribing natural sounds.

Take dog and cat sounds, for example:

English = woof
French = ouah
Japanese = wan-wan

English = meow
French = miaou
Japanese = nyaa-nyaa

Japanese actually has tons and tons of sounds that are onomatopoetic, and they aren't always used for the obvious animal sounds, crash and smash sounds, etc. Some are used for "a slippery feeling" or even for silence (which I always found amusing. How can silence "say" anything?).

Even English has more onomatopoeia than you might think. If you look at words that have the "a" sound of hat, then you see they have a feeling in common. Splat, crash, bash, smack, crack... Some of them are sounds, but others are halfway between sound and word.

Looking across languages, you can actually see common trends in onomatopoeia. Some vowels, like "a" and "ee" are associated with some types of action, while others like "o" and "oo" are connected with others. Voiced sounds, like "b" "d" "g" etc. tend to occur in actions or sounds with greater intensity or lower pitch, while their unvoiced equivalents "p" "t" "k" tend to occur in actions with lesser intensity. Japanese illustrates this really well:

hyoro-hyoro = dripping tears
poro-poro = dripping of light rain
boro-boro = dripping of heavier rain

So just in case any of you are thinking of creating local-language onomatopoeia, you might want to think about the human associations of sound with intensity, brightness, etc. while you do it!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

"In-group" does not equal "in-crowd"

This post is mostly about Japan and Japanese, but I hope it will be useful to people looking for ways to expand their ideas on social organization - maybe it can open up some new possibilities for the concepts of self and other in someone's alien group or fantasy society.

The social concept of the "in-group" is quintessentially Japanese, and built into the language in many ways. All their forms of "this" and "that" are based on it. So are their verbs for giving. For example, consider the two non-honorific verbs of giving (used quite commonly to talk about doing favors as well as giving things):

kureru = give to someone in the in-group
ageru = give to anyone not in the in-group

By the way, "kureru" still means "give," because there's an entirely different word for "receive" (morau).

In-group is a concept that has been translated into English quite a bit, so people I talk to have sometimes heard of it, but often they take it to mean the same thing as "in crowd," i.e. a group of socially accepted people. The tough part is, people in an "in crowd" can be part of an "in-group" - but they aren't always.

In-group basically means the people who are members of a social group. Any social group, regardless of its popularity or size. The important part is, the in-group is whatever group the speaker feels associated with at the time that they are speaking. It can change depending on context.

If Mr. Tanaka from Kobe is talking to a non-Japanese person, then he may refer to all Japanese people as the in-group.

If he's in a work-related conversation with someone outside his home company, then all members of his home company become the in-group.

If he's in a work-related conversation inside his home company, but with someone outside his department, then the members of his department become the in-group.

If he's in a conversation at work that concerns his family, then his family is the in-group.

If he's in a conversation within his family, then he himself, alone, is the in-group.

As you may imagine, this can give Japanese language students nightmares. On the other hand, it's a very robust concept in Japan, and on one level, it makes a lot of sense. The in-group is essentially the humbled group in situations where status language is used.

Whenever it's socially appropriate to humble yourself, it's also appropriate to humble all the people that co-occupy your group with you: to humble members of your own company relative to a client company, or to humble members of your department relative to another, or to humble your own family relative to people who don't belong to it.

It's like concentric circles, ripples that can move out from or in toward the individual dropped in the middle.

I hope this can send a few ripples through your ideas of social organization. :-)

Friday, September 5, 2008

Worldbuilding: foreground or background?

Say you've got this gorgeous world - you've slaved over it, crafted its tiniest details with care, placed characters in it, and now you're ready to tell a story about it. How do you get the world to appear in the background without overwhelming the story?

Let's start with geography.

Some authors can get away with having a page or more of scenery or setting description, while for others it can seem like needless information. Well, if your characters should happen to be on a quest (for example!), traveling through this scenery, then that gives you some opportunities to describe it, but those descriptions can stick out, or be set into the foreground, as digressions.

On the other hand, if the scenery is active in the plot and the inner lives of the characters, it will suddenly be extremely relevant. This can be done with plot events, like in Tolkien's The Hobbit when a thunderstorm leads the characters to take cover in a cave, and they end up getting kidnapped by goblins.

Or when a character-internal deeper point of view is involved, that person's observations of a scene can be colored by, and demonstrate, the emotional state that is about to drive him or her onto the next section of the plot. I'm reminded of agent Donald Maass at the Surrey International Writers' Conference, talking about a lengthy scene description from Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. It was a description of a boat dock after a severe storm, and it was long. Some of the details were even wrong - but it was riveting, in part for its acute observation of detail, but also because it said so much about the character who was walking through it.

In a sense, maybe "background" is the wrong word, because it implies that something should fade or disappear. In a case like this, the scenery is highly obvious, but it has a purpose other than being scenery. It is serving the larger purposes of the story.

When a piece of world information is at its most relevant, that's when you want it to appear. Maybe you've designed this great alphabet for your language - but since you're writing in English, you don't get to use it to write the story! My instincts would tell me that such information shouldn't be explained, as such, but subordinated to other things. When might people have an opportunity to look at text? And when would its form be important to the story?

In The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo sees letters on the ring, he says "It's some form of Elvish - I can't read it" and Gandalf replies, "The language is that of Mordor, which I shall not utter here." Even if we couldn't see the writing itself, we would still know not only that it's in a foreign language, but that the language is related to Elvish! Sure, Tolkien's having Gandalf explain to Frodo instead of explaining to us, but he's also managed to sneak in the fact that he's designed his world with language families. And that Mordor is bad, and that it will loom large in Frodo's future.

Last - but not least, for me anyway - is social status. The downtrodden are popular subjects for stories, in science fiction as well as fantasy. Support the underdog, because revolutions are fun!
The difficulty is expressing people's low status without having an oppressed character step forth and announce, "The Madugans are an oppressed minority and everybody mistreats them."

That's not how people talk about their own status, because it's too distant and external. Where would a member of this oppressed minority learn the words "oppressed minority"? Maybe from a social worker, if this world has them - but even then, he or she would probably say "We Madugans are an oppressed minority and everybody mistreats us." And who would this person be saying it to? Not to anybody in the oppressed group, because their status is such a normal part of their existence that the statement would be ludicrous in its obviousness.

So switch the announcement into plot form for a minute. To demonstrate that the Madugans are oppressed, take one of them and put them in a social situation where someone trips or hits them, and then insults them. It's better - but not necessarily optimal. The question is, is this a normal experience for a Madugan? And how does the character react?

If the experience is not usual or normal, then think about adding the extra dimension of avoidance. Have the Madugan see the incident coming (they would recognize the signs) and try to get out of it. Then have them try to suppress their own indignation in order to keep out of worse trouble.

If the experience is normal, the Madugan may still see the incident coming - may even expend effort trying to avoid it - but will probably not go into a full-blown rage. Full-blown rage, or even suppressed anger, is stressful and indicative of something that becomes too much, but can have dire consequences.

So what's the result? If you want to portray an oppressed person in a way that suggests they are mistreated constantly, don't actually have them get mad. Have them brush it off compared to what happened last week, or what happened to their friend, or just go "There goes Baron Rompert doing his thing again. Oh, well, better get to work." It will have a very different effect on the reader.

Upcoming posts at TTYU: metaphor, "Show not tell" exposed

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Diseases, and the lack thereof

People don't tend to get colds a lot in SF/F. Unless you count that story of the man waking up in a future that has eliminated all disease, only to be euthanized when he says he has a cold. (It's been so long since I read it that I can't remember the author. Help me out, anyone?)

Probably colds seldom appear because the turning point of a plot doesn't tend to rest on whether Captain Whoever has the sniffles at the time. Most often in my reading I see plagues - serious ones - like the one in Anne McCaffrey's Moreta where the entire Pernese population comes under threat. Now that's a disease worthy of attention in a story!

This is not a bad thing. I've only read one series where people got colds, and were hurt every time they were hit by a rock or had a bad fall, a serious battle, etc. By the time I was 100 pages in it was so appalling that I was ready to laugh (or put the book down).

On the other hand, I do get concerned when I see people portrayed in abject poverty, having no visible means of health care or benefits of plumbing in their lives of squalor, yet who seem to have no illnesses. Parasites, anyone? Fevers, or malnutrition? And if not, why not?

I've actually spent a good deal of time agonizing over whether the poor in my Varin world should have good teeth. Cosmetic dentistry? Absolutely not. Orthodontia? Another no. But what about cavities and decay? Varin isn't a possible future earth, so tooth decay isn't exactly required. On the other hand, I don't think of Varin as a fantasy world, where it would be somewhat easier to imagine that mouth bacteria don't exist. And if it's science fiction, well... The jury's still out, but my current thought is that their technological level is high enough - the repressive government has probably fluoridated the water. Plausible, yet unobtrusive. With a high enough level of general societal technology, it's not too far out to imagine their medical profession is up to the task of getting that done.

As far as medical technology goes, there is a lot of room for flexibility. For low technology, you can look at the history of medicine in our world and vary it according to your needs. For high technology, you can extrapolate, which is always fun. Personalized medicine based on DNA is something people are already aiming at now, so I like to think it would be possible in the future.

Then there's medical culture. Who is the doctor? Is his or her role spiritual, scientific, both, neither? What of bedside manners? Is the doctor or the patient considered to know more about the nature of the complaint?

The last thing I want to mention is something I've been working with in a recent novel revision: How do you portray a population with weak immune systems, high incidence of mental illness, and high rate of infant mortality if none of your protagonists are currently sick? Yes, of course you can always say, "this population is inbred and has weak immune systems etc., etc." ...

How to describe the feeling I get from an explanation like that? Clunky, I could say. Or I could brandish my "show not tell" sword. But I think the best word for me is "external," or perhaps "distant." The explanation is something the author knows, but people living inside such a society would probably not be inclined to step back and talk about themselves that way (unless they were doctors making reports to the government, or something).

So instead I try to create a culture of health in the group I'm working with. I have them place labels on the sufferers - people "closeted" with deformities or chronic illness, or spoken of in whispers as "weak in the head." I make an increase in birth rate and infant health the stuff of public propaganda announcements. And I lace every slightest sign of ill health with a sense of fear in those who witness it. I have people make defensive statements about illness, always knowing internally that the diseases that cause minor affliction in others would likely kill them.

This actually forms a nice lead into my next topic, "worldbuilding in foreground vs. background." It's essentially "show not tell" - but I'm hoping to make it somewhat easier to think through, and to implement...

Upcoming posts at TTYU: worldbuilding in foreground vs. background; metaphor

Nicknames (shortening names)

Did you ever hear of a character named Ikiolaraldian Var Orkesh mis Anok'rand?

Of course not, because I made him up - but there are plenty of books out there where the character names are so complex I have difficulty pronouncing them, remembering them, etc. One of my friends typically takes any name over a certain length and remembers it by shortening it to the first syllable, just to simplify things.

My friend T.L. Morganfield works with the Aztec world, so she has to name her characters the way the Aztecs used to do it, leading to names like Acatl-tzin, etc. This is a challenge, and I've seen her take two primary approaches to it: using the names as written, when they're shorter, or translating them into their meanings, when they're so long that they become hard to parse.

Some names are not directly translatable. In English this is typically the case with first names. We've got a number of strategies for nicknaming people.

1. adding an "ee" sound to make a diminutive, which actually can make the name longer, like James (1 syllable) to Jamie (2 syllables).

2. shortening a name, like taking down Robert to Rob, or Elizabeth to Liz, Beth, Betty (two strategies there), etc.

Australia has some interesting nicknaming strategies. My favorite is the Barry->Bazza, Harry/Harold->Hazza, Larry -> Lazza pattern, which I'm less sure how to analyze, but I'm thinking it's a type of diminutive or at least an indicator of solidarity with the person in question.

Japanese also has a name-shortening strategy, which takes a name and reduces it to the first two syllables (or single long syllable), then adds a diminutive suffix. So for Mariko it would be Mari-chan, and for Michiko it's Mi'-chan (double consonant to start the chan). For males you could have Haruki becoming Haru-kun, etc.

If you're dealing with naming in a fantasy or science fiction world, you might want to ask yourself whether your population has a tendency to nickname. Depending on how your names are designed, this could be done in different ways - based on the English, Australian, Japanese
or other Earth-language pattern, or based on a pattern that fits the culture in question.

The example I'm thinking of comes from Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. The Karhidish character who befriends Genly Ai has rather a long name: Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. Fortunately, and fascinatingly, the pieces of the name have meaning, and this influences who calls him what. Therem Harth most closely matches our first and last name pattern, while rem ir Estraven is an indicator of his geographical affiliation , the land from which he comes. At first, when their relationship is entirely diplomatic, Genly Ai calls him Estraven, but after they become close, he invites Genly to call him Harth, i.e. by his last name. Difficulty arises when they attempt to communicate telepathically and discover that Genly can only refer to him as Therem in this form of communication - in part because using the first name indicates intimacy.

What is so awesome about LeGuin's approach is how each name choice means something different, and culturally specific, because of the way she's put the names together in the first place. I should also note that the names of people from Orgoreyn don't work this way, because the language and culture are different.

Naming and nicknaming don't have to be just for fun and convenience. They can also reveal a lot about the world your characters live in.

Upcoming posts at TTYU: health, worldbuilding in foreground vs. background

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Today will be my son's first day of Kindergarten. All around me are moms with five-year olds preparing their kids to go, many having attended preschool, many without. Some have tears gathering in their hearts at losing their little babies, others (like me) are grinning and excited about the new world that's about to open up.

Education is central to our society. It provides us with meaningful transition events of all kinds. Going to kindergarten for the first time, or graduating from high school, or going off to college and adult independence, and everything in between.

It also informs the way in which we expect to communicate. We get trained in this society to sit in groups and listen to another (usually single) person talk. This is not new; this is OLD. I'm imagining Plato sitting down with his pupils in the agora. And before him was Socrates, and before him...?

The content of what we learn has changed a lot. Or maybe not so much in its fundamentals - still trying to prepare young people to enter society in a meaningful way. Just that the society itself is not the same everywhere, all the time. US education values (or tries to value) critical thinking, exploration and innovation. Japanese education does an amazing job of providing literacy (in a very tough literacy system!), and high levels of performance on many tasks. Do they innovate? Sure - they've been growing and changing for thousands of years, even when they had no contact with the outside world. But the model of educational communication is slightly different.

American teachers value creativity, but they do have to value actually grasping the fundamentals of the topic, also. Too much free thinking and you can start dropping basic parameters of physics or mathematics. I'm only kind of kidding.

Japanese teachers come from a slightly different model, in which the expert (say, an artist or musician) didn't have to take students at all, but those who wanted to learn from him (her?) would have to sneak around, pick up what they could from listening or watching around corners until they could prove their dedication, whereupon they might be taken on as students. It's called "stealing the art." Thereafter the ideal is to duplicate exactly, with all skill and artistry, what the teacher does - and then to innovate. The innovation is still there, but subject to a few more stringent prerequisites.

The master/apprentice model is very common in fantasy and science fiction (and Star Wars, whichever side that falls on!). There are also schools of magic (Hogwarts being quite a standout!). It's important to consider how your characters come about the things they know, and if you think about how they consider their knowledge philosophically, that can really deepen your characters. Someone with super-ninja skills isn't going to get them by falling off a log. And I always wondered how the heck Jason Bourne learned all the stuff he knew before he turned into a doddering old man - but maybe it was the, um, intensity of the education he received!

I'll write more about this later, but for now it's time to go and get my kids started on a very big day.

I'm smiling.