The Fictorians

Writing What You’re Not

14 April 2014 | No Comments » | Tristan Brand

Laja followed Verl into the human bar, slithering closer to him than was polite, as she feared getting left behind more than the breach in etiquette. Inside, her eyestalks recoiled from the harsh fluorescent light. As her eyes adjusted, she saw that the room was filled to the brim with the strange pasty-skinned creatures, crammed together eight to a table. So many sharing the same air! She ran a tentacle over her breathing apparatus, making sure it was secured. The human’s language, grunting linear syllabic expressions, made her ears hurt. Ugly / Stupid / Why are we here? she mind-sang to Verl, who, judging by the quivering of his own tentacles, was as horrified as she.

 

***

 

One of the great things about writing speculative fiction is we aren’t limited to telling stories only from a human’s perspective. Our characters can be dogs or dragons or golems or even aliens, like Laja and Verl from the passage above. Though often non-human characters play second-fiddle to a human protagonist, sometimes they take the stage themselves and we, as readers, can imagine what it might be like to walk (or slither) about as another species entirely.

Of course, writing from a non-human point of view presents its own set of challenges, as we writers are all too human (well, most of us, anyway.) Our experience is fundamentally different than that of a dog’s or a dragon’s. Still, this shouldn’t stop us – it’s not like all humans see the world the same. Writers must write characters of different genders, different ages, different cultures, and of different belief systems. Each time we have to stretch our imagination and try to understand the other. There’s no reason we can’t do the same for characters of different species.

I’ve always had a particular love for non-human characters. Aside from the fun of imagining what it might be like to have wings or a tail, they can add a lot to a story by giving us a radically different perspective on things we might find mundane. Take the passage about aliens at a bar from above. Most humans would find nothing odd about stepping into a crowded bar, but for a pair of aliens with totally different cultural and physical norms, the experience becomes a harrowing one. It gives us, as readers, an opportunity to imagine what we might look to beings who aren’t used to us or our behavior. I’ve found such shifts in perspective can lead to unexpected insights and add a great deal to a story.

The passage also demonstrates some of the techniques you can use in writing a non-human character. The physicality of the character is different. Laja doesn’t walk, she slithers. She doesn’t use her hands, she uses tentacles. She doesn’t have regular eyes but instead, eyestalks. Such details are critical in making her perspective believable.

There are key cultural differences too. Laja’s horror at how tightly the humans sit together, and her concern that following her companion too closely might be considered rude, show a fundamental difference in how she see’s personal space. Her reaction to their language and her own mind-song demonstrates major differences in communication and language.

There’s a trap here, where in our attempts to write a non-human character as believably as possible, we let the differences in their culture and physicality interfere with the story. I’m working on a novel right now from the perspective of a dog. A real dog probably spends an inordinate amount of time sorting through scents, but if I spent paragraph after paragraph simply describing what everything smelled like, no one would want to read past page two. It’s important to find the proper balance between keeping the perspective compelling and not letting it get in the way of the story.

One example of a very well done non-human point of view is Scriber from Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. Scriber is part of a race called the Tines, wolf-like creatures that live in packs governed by hive-minds. One subplot of the novel follows Scriber as he tries to save the lives of two human children stranded on his planet. Vinge paints a vivid picture of the Tines’ world, as well as what it might be like to be a being that has control of multiple individual bodies.

For those interested in reading more novels that feature non-human perspectives, here are a few more examples I recommend checking out:

  • TenSoon, from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. TenSoon is a kandra, a being that can absorb a dead body of any other species and takes its form. In particular, I think Brandon does a wonderful job of creating a unique culture for the Kandra, who are bound by a contract that prevents them from doing violence.
  • Chet, from Dog On It by Spencer Quinn. A rare example from a non-speculative fiction genre, the novel is told from the point of view of Chet the dog, owned by a detective named Bernie.
  • Auron from Dragon Champion by E. E. Knight. As ubiquitous as dragons are in fantasy, novels where they get significant point-of-views seem rare. All of Knight’s novels in this series are told from the point of view of dragons born of the same clutch, who find themselves orphaned at a young age and forced to fend for themselves.

 

Writing Who You’re Not

11 April 2014 | No Comments » | mary

Two aliens walked into a bar. “Greetings, Earthling,” they said to the bartender. “Take us to your leader!”

That was the point where Dar’xyl threw the book across the room. “Human authors can’t write us worth scrap!”
#

While I was studying for my Master’s degree in English, I sat through several classroom arguments to the effect of, “This (male) author can’t write realistic female characters; this (female) author fetishizes gay men when she writes; this (Black) author shouldn’t write a book about Native Americans; no, wait, it’s okay when this Black author writes about Native Americans, but not when these White authors do.” I left these classes wondering if I dared ever write about anyone who came from a culture, ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation or any background and experience different from my own.

If I only wrote characters rooted in my own personal experience, all the people in my stories would be female, white, under 40, Canadian, and of German, English or Jewish heritage. There would be no Asian people, no transgender people, no Muslim people, no elderly people, and no men. The setting would always be late-twentieth or early-twenty-first century, Planet Earth.

I wouldn’t want to write in this world. It’s got no relation to the world around me—it doesn’t feel real—and I’ve yet to think of a compelling and logical reason why it would be peopled only with characters whose experiences parallel my own. In order to write a realistic, compelling world, you’ll probably have to create at least a few characters whose experiences are rooted in backgrounds you don’t share (unless you’re writing about, for example, an isolated village in China where everyone is probably Chinese; or a colony where a plague has killed all the men; or another scenario where minimal diversity is a critical component of the setting).

On the other hand, it’s one thing to make your character a different faith, gender, age or ethnicity, but another thing to write such a person realistically. Oftentimes authors, sometimes unconsciously, fall into stereotypes when they try to write from a different point of view. Take some time to do some research and understand what experiences, attitudes, and cultural values might shape such a person’s thinking and worldview. Choose carefully what story you want to tell – is it a story best told by someone with personal experience? For example, I’m comfortable writing a story with a gay male lead, but I’m not comfortable writing a story about what it’s like to be a gay man in modern Canada.

Also understand that just because two characters come from the same religion/ethnic background/culture/etc., doesn’t mean their worldviews are going to be the same. Losing an arm, for example, will be a different experience for the rich person who buys a cutting-edge prosthetic limb than it will be for the poor thief who now has to make a living with just one hand. Being Black is going to be a different experience for the Black kid who’s the only Black person in her entire high school than it is for the Black kid who grows up surrounded by a community – and that community’s experience will differ depending on if it’s in 1990s Nova Scotia or 1960s Alabama. Being Christian can run the gamut from Mother Teresa to the Westboro Baptist Church, and so on.

The best weapon in the writer’s arsenal is the ability to imagine and empathize with another’s point of view. This was a challenge to me in a recent short story in which the main character is a religious leader, but his own belief is best described as agnostic. I was tired of – yes, a stereotype, in which every character who is a religious leader is always either highly devout, or else utterly corrupt. I wanted to create a character who wrestles with his faith, who tries to fulfill the duties of his job despite deep personal misgivings.

I’ve always been a strongly religious person, so I had to imagine: what experiences made this person an atheist in his youth? What experiences made him suspect that there might be a God after all? Why did he choose his current faith over all the others? Why is he still unsure that his God is real? Writing this character helped me imagine an experience different from any I’ve ever had myself.

This is one of the great powers of fiction: the ability to make the reader understand, empathize, and see the world through different eyes—to experience what it’s like to be someone else. Sometimes that “someone else” is a person of a different gender, ethnicity, faith, age…the list goes on. This power challenges the writer to provide a view that doesn’t simply reinforce cultural stereotypes. And even though the story might be fiction, the understanding of how that point of view feels from inside, can linger long after the story is over.

*If you’re curious – you can meet Shaman Pasharan, Sigil of the Silver Future, in the upcoming EDGE anthology Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with Gods, in a story entitled “Burnt Offerings.”

Showing through Point of View

10 April 2014 | No Comments » | Jace Sanders

peepIn my early writing I struggled with Point of View. I recently reread one of the first chapters I had written where I switched point of view seven times. I improved to the point where POV wasn’t my main fault, instead it was telling the story rather than showing it.

I’ve since learned that POV can be an extremely effective tool to help show the story. Allowing our characters to experience and react to the circumstances in which we place them, helps to endear the reader, reinforce the scene, and establish conflict.

Junic sat beside his friend facing the numerous rows of bottles and tins, the best the seven galaxies had to offer. His mouth watered. He hadn’t tasted liquor since the invasion of Gareth, four years earlier.

Hopefully in the few sentences above, the reader gets a glimpse at the premise of the story based on the prompt “two aliens walked into a bar.” 

In developing my main character, Junic, I assigned him a foreign sounding name to help with the suggestion that he isn’t from modern day USA. From his point of view we see that he is sitting next to a friend, and there are rows of bottles, perhaps in a cellar, maybe a bar, but then tins doesn’t quite work with that image so it adds to the foreignism of the scene.

Junic obviously knows what’s in the bottles and the scene isn’t foreign to him at all. I can use that to invite the reader to trust me as I create and show them a world.

The term seven galaxies might reinforces the alien setting, while adding an element to the world. I indicate here that there is a social structure, a system of which Junic is a part. I could let him react to that structure at some point, maybe identify his place in the caste system or have him react to authority. I can use adjectives to indicate his mood or elaborate on his thoughts. Such as the “blasted” seven galaxies or magnificent, or heathen, or doomed. Each could indicate more of the world and setting and any would give us further insight into our character.

“His mouth watered.” A human response, if Junic is human or humanlike, I really hadn’t thought that far ahead, however his response is relatable. Often with physical reactions like a tear, a yawn, a scratch of the head, and so on, a memory is provoked. The scene causes Junic’s mouth to water and he thinks of the last time he tasted what was in those bottles.

SecretIn the Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Mary Lennox (a proper British name) is introduced in a scene given from her point of view.

‘“Why did you come?” she said to the strange woman. “I will not let you stay. Send my Ayah to me.”’

From this short dialogue we learn a bit about Mary and her world. Adjectives should be representative of the point of view. The woman was strange to Mary, unknown. She wanted to see her Ayah. At this point I’m not sure if that is a person or a position. Either way, Mary seems to want Ayah, and by her demanding response to this woman gives the sense that Mary is or at least thinks she is in charge.

Later it reads

“There was something mysterious in the air that morning. Nothing was done in its regular order and several of the native servants seemed missing, while those whom Mary saw slunk or hurried about with ashy and scared faces. But no one would tell her anything and her Ayah did not come.”

I get the sense that tragedy has occurred, though I’m not sure yet what it is. By now in the story I can tell that I’m seeing the world from the eyes of young girl, and discovering the tragedy with her. Another adjective, “scared” sticks out to me. Children can perceive fear. She’s observing them, trying to figure out what’s going on by gauging their reactions. I gain a sense that the young girl is spoiled and depends greatly on her Ayah, that I suspect as being some sort of nanny. My opinion of Mary develops and adds to the conflict. Her attitude is reflected in the point of view, in her dialogue and in her actions.

hungerThe following is a piece of dialogue from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:

‘”You look beautiful,” says Prim in a hushed voice.

‘”And nothing like myself,” I say. I hug her, because I know these next few hours will be terrible for her. Her first reaping. She’s about as safe as you can get since she’s only entered once. I wouldn’t let her take out any tesserae. But she’s worried about me. That the unthinkable might happen.’

In just a few sentences I’m introduced to two characters, I gain a sense of their feelings, I am shown a glimpse into their society, and am invited into a world, foreign to me, but known to them.

Being in first person, I’m drawn to the mind and feelings of Katniss the main character. Be careful in first person to not be too revealing and telling.

Through dialogue I gather that Katniss is beautiful, but is out of her element from being prettied up. Maybe she’s a tomboy. I also sense that there is apprehension in the scene. The adjective hushed suggests a somberness to the ambiance. And a hug for comfort suggests something bad is about to happen.

I’m curious about the reaping. I know what it means in english, but have never heard it referred to as a repeated event, so it must be a part of their culture, perhaps a rite of passage. Reading this I’m not sure what tesserae is, but Katniss does. I don’t need to know what it is right this minute. In my earlier writing I would feel the need to explain a new term (tell) rather than let it be discovered as its mentioned in certain contexts and reinforced (show). I assume that the reaping is some custom of their system with negative consequences. Using these terms helps show me Katniss’ world.

Whatever story you’re reading, take note how the author uses point of view to invite you into the world, develop the setting, and endear the reader. And for some practice, try your hand at the prompt, “two aliens walk into a bar.” Feel free to share it with us in the comments.

 

The Right Voice for a Dick

9 April 2014 | 2 Comments » | Quincy Allen

The music was a dirge, some long-forgotten Celtic lament full of wailing. It washed over me like surf over a half-buried corpse at low tide. Ira stood behind the bar cleaning the same glass he’d been running a dirty towel over for the past ten years.

I raised an eyebrow in his direction, just a flicker. It was all I needed. A beer slid down the bar at me. I smiled. We’d been doing this a long time.

I didn’t turn when I heard the door open. Didn’t have to. When Ira’s hand froze on the glass, I knew there was something worth looking at. I peeked at the mirror behind him. The thing in the doorway definitely wasn’t from around here. Neither was whatever it had on a leash, a beast of roughly the same species, but down on all fours.

Both of their heads turned in unison, the noonday sun casting a halo around, squat, inhuman forms. Their bloodshot eyes locked on me, and on they came. I lost an angle on them in the mirror, but the thump of bare, leathery feet and hands placed them right behind me. I took a sip of beer and stared straight ahead.

Your move, I thought as the stench of sulfur wafted around me. Seconds ticked by. A strong hand clamped down on my shoulder, turned me on the barstool, slow enough not to spill the beer still in my hand. That was polite, I thought.

It was the one on all fours that had the intelligent eyes. Strange, that.

“Hoar’thuft. Moid dan sul bree ik rael Jonny Stiles?” it croaked in a voice that was equal parts whisper and bandsaw.

I stared at the little one for exactly three seconds. “Yeah? Who’s asking?” My eyes shifted to the one standing. It smiled, or, at least did what demons use for a smile… all teeth and wide eyes, the sort of look that wakes old church ladies up with screams and sweaty sheets.

“Wuldrix cu sein Beelzebub,” the short one growled.

It was an order, not a request.

My eyes never left his… or its… I could never tell with demons.

“Ira,” I said slowly, “hold my spot. I’ll be back in an hour.”

It was the little one’s turn to smile.

 * * *

Colette started April off with a prompt about aliens and bars, the intention being a discussion of voice and perspective in fiction. It sounded like a writing prompt to me, so I came up with what you just read.

(NOTE: Don’t be surprised if you see that in a short story from me one of these days.)

What’s germane to this month’s Fictorian topic is what we can deduce from just 380 words:

  • This is going to be a first-person POV story
  • We’ll pretty much only know what the protagonist Jonny Stiles knows
  • The tone and word choices throughout let us know this is noir fiction and probably detective noir
  • “Alien” doesn’t have to mean from another country or planet
  • Jonny Stiles is a regular in Ira’s bar and might have a drinking problem
  • Jonny isn’t surprised by the presence of demons
  • Jonny speaks the language of Hell
  • Demons know him by name
  • Jonny isn’t surprised to hear that the Devil wants to see him
  • Jonny is cool as a cucumber at the thought of going to Hell

I like to think this is the sort of prose that sucks a reader in and prompts the following questions:

  • Who is Jonny Stiles?
  • Why is he so calm about meeting the Devil in Hell?
  • Why the hell does the Devil want to see Jonny?

It’s these kinds of questions that prompt a reader to care about a protagonist, and, more importantly, encourage the reader to keep going. Furthermore, the advantage of first-person is that the reader knows—or at least hopes—that they’ll be visiting Hell as “I” not as someone else. The reader has a vested interest in the outcome, because it’s happening to them as far as their brain is concerned. That little use of “I” rather than “he” or “she” makes a mountain of difference in the experience. Just imagine… a free trip to Hell, answering the question of one half of the afterlife, without having to pony up one’s immortal soul as part of the bargain.

There are few among us who don’t have that deep, dark little part that is just the teensiest bit curious about Hell, about the seedier side of human endeavor. When a writer offers up the tantalizing promise of feeding that desire, most are willing to take the bait, especially if the price of admission is just a few more words… and a few more… and a few more.

In many respects, that’s what writers need to do: convince the reader to invest the time for just a few more. Writers are crack-dealers when it comes right down to it… feeding brains with a very different sort of drug.

If you’re writing genre fiction, you really do need to consider two things. The first is what and how much of the story you want to expose to the reader. When using first person, the reader should know only what the protagonist knows (with very few exceptions). Using third person opens up doors to getting the perspective of other characters in the story. There are reasons to use both of them, and it’s important for the writer to understand and implement the right one.

The second thing to consider the tone of your language. Word choice is what differentiates your writing from another author’s. It also differentiates noir from tea-cozy from western. There’s a language for damn near every genre, and the people who read that genre speak it fluently. You need to work hard to get your words right, and it’s this process that sets the great writers apart from the good ones… and the bad. The good ones frequently ponder and haggle and angst over a single word. They hold it up to the light and determine if it’s as potent as they need it to be.

So give thought to your words. They can be as potent as crack cocaine or as bland as American cheese.

On a side-note, I have crafted this meaningless bar chart below (tongue in cheek, naturally) as both an experiment and an inside joke with my fellow Fictorians.

barchart

 

Q.

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