Category Archives: World-building

The Art of Writing Medicine – Pitfalls

So you want to write a scene with a medical element to it. The bad guys have knocked the love interest unconscious, or someone needs to die of an awful disease, or you need to establish that your physician character knows (or doesn’t know) what she’s talking about. But you want to make sure you do it right – not too much detail but enough so that you don’t look foolish. How do you walk that line?

It’s probably easier than you think it is. First of all, big breath – unless you’re actually writing an article in The New England Journal of Medicine you’re probably not going to have to be exact. Readers don’t want verbatim quotes from a medical textbook, but rather details that enhance or propel the story, or help to define who the characters are. That said; you do get points for accuracy, or at least some form of plausibility.

In no particular order, here are some suggestions to avoid common pitfalls when it comes to writing medicine in science-fiction and fantasy

  1. Nothing is absolute, within reason.  There’s no hard and fast rule to state that your medicine has to be accurate, and for many, engaged in world building of alien species or seeing the needs of the plot, being shackled to the rules can limit the creative work. That said, there are always certain things that people will pick up, especially if they have some medical knowledge of their own. The bottom line is that you don’t have to show yourself off to be an expert, but you should  be able to use common sense as to when you can fudge it and when you need to do research, or better yet, ask for help.
  2. Avoid the common errors. That is, there are certain mistakes that are so common that you should just be able to avoid them as a matter of course. Just because people on TV or in movies can get up and keep going after being given CPR, that doesn’t mean you should write it that way. In real life, getting a pulse back after CPR is a rare thing, and if you do, it’s still more likely to lead to a screaming ambulance ride, a breathing tube and an advanced cooling protocol, and a stay in intensive care. Likewise, being hit on the head such that a character loses consciousness is a serious neurological emergency; at best it’s a concussion when they wake up, and at worst there could be serious bleeding inside the head.
  3. The more crucial the point, the more specific you’ll have to be.  This stands to reason; if the medical plot point is minor then it won’t require as much detail in the story as something major. As an establishing fact of your alien’s biology, to say that there are three biological sexes can be a great way to establish difference. If your story depends on that fact for a plot point, you’re going to have to put some thought into how to describe that. It seems simple enough, but it means that if you’re going to trip up anywhere, this will likely be it. Do the research, think about what will or won’t work, and then go for it.
  4. Alien/fantasy medicine can work best as a variation of what we know. If part of your story hinges on a fact of alien biology, one way to make it plausible is to use the human known version as a template and diverge from that. In “Star Trek”, Vulcans have green blood that is based on copper instead of iron. The writers didn’t just make that up, however; in our own bodies, iron is a key component of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in our red blood cells by binding its ionic form to oxygen. Copper ions are also used in our body – not for the same purpose, but it’s not a complete leap to suggest that evolution couldn’t use it for an analogy to hemogloblin. Likewise for organ structure or diseases or other biological facts; one way to get started is to vary from a known theme.
  5. Alternatively, vastly different biology/medicine is better left to the imagination. If you are planning to detail the biology of a species or a race that is vastly different from ours, and you want to make it something completely unrelated to what we know – well, there’s no reason you can’t, but this might be a situation where it’s best to go for less detail instead of more. Getting bogged down into what makes everything so different and alien may end up overwhelming the reader. Better to stick with a few tantalizing details and leave the rest to the imagination without worrying too much about explaining.
  6. The medicine serves the story, not vice versa. Finally, keep in mind that none of these suggestions trump the basic need for good storytelling, believable characters, and compelling plot. It won’t do you any good to explain your thesis about your alien species sixty-four chromosomes or your brilliant doctor’s ability to transplant anything into anybody if it swamps the fundamentals of good writing. Using medicine or medical characters in a story needs to move the story forward, not get it mired in exposition and detail.

Next – writing a good doctor.

Self-consistency and Maintaining the Fourth Wall

When many, if not most, readers enter a fictional world, they want to stay there until they’re ready to leave. For us writers, that means having to avoid doing anything that pulls the reader out of our world. Failing in this task may make it difficult for a given reader to buy into our creation. They may set it down and move onto something else. If this happens, we’ve lost them.

Any aspect of storytelling is vulnerable to this. Someone breaking out of character, the introduction of a deus ex machina, and even poor handling of point-of-view are all good ways of infuriating readers, and rightly so: they are violations of an unspoken trust with our readers that the stories we are telling them are self-consistent.

Setting is an aspect of storytelling which is particularly vulnerable to this kind of violation, especially in genres where setting is important, such as in fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction (by setting, I mean all things related to world-building, such as culture, dress, geography, the laws of physics or magic, etc.). Read enough reviews in any of those genres and you will see that one of the widest criticisms is that the author described some event that could not or would not have happened in that context, and thus the reader was pulled out of the story. There’s a good reason for why this can be such a problem for a writer: setting, by its very nature, consists of a vast number of interrelated concretes. Consider the difference between a character arc and a city, full of people, buildings, roads, belief systems, cultures, and so on, and you should see what I mean. It’s very possible (and necessary) to track the shape of a particular character’s arc, but far more complicated to track the goings-on of every person and thing in a city. There are many ways we can forget a detail that affects the story later on, and thus cause one of those reader-losing violations.

Of course, simply not knowing how an aspect of your world works can also do this. Many of our readers are smart enough to know that you can’t ride a horse at a gallop while swinging a fifty-pound sword for five hours straight. As most writers should by now know, doing some research solves most of these problems.

But there’s another related issue that can be a little subtler, and it relates purely to a world’s self-consistency. Unless you’re writing an alternate history or time travel yarn, your Imperial Roman soldier isn’t going to call his wife on his cell phone, since cell phones didn’t exist back then. An obvious example, but things get a little trickier when you’re writing in a purely secondary (or, purely imagined) world.

I once wrote an epic fantasy story in which one of my characters was exhausted, and was described as feeling as if he had just run a marathon. While it seemed pretty innocuous to me at the time, someone in my writing group couldn’t buy into it, because the word “marathon” is named for the run of Greek soldier Pheidippides during the Battle of Marathon. And since such an event never occurred in my world, he argued, how would the concept of a marathon in the normal sense even arise?

Hearing his criticism was a bit of a wake-up call for me, and now I sometimes find myself watching out for the same thing with books that I read (as much as I’d rather just sit back and enjoy them). Of course, in my hierarchy of priorities, I’m going to put a satisfying plot over catching myself using the word “marathon,” but I still keep an eye out for something like that slipping in. Whether or not you’re that meticulous about your world’s etymology, rest assured that some of your readers will be.

* For another interesting post on the topic of word choice, check out the earlier post by Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl, if you haven’t already.

Programmers, Hackers, and Technology

As a Software Engineer and Security Analyst, one of the things that always bothers me in modern media is how programmers and hackers are portrayed. There seems to be a common belief that they have almost magical powers to pull usernames and passwords out of the air or complete complex tasks in seconds. I know my complaint is common and that anyone in a specialized profession can share my angst, but I thought I would write a little bit on how it actually works. In order to maintain the tempo of your novel, you may be inclined to skip all my advice and use HollywoodOS (the fake Hollywood systems) but at least you’ll be more informed. I’ll try to talk about where we are and where I believe we’re going in the future.

Starting with programmers, we’re a group very similar to writers. All of our work is creative in one way or another. Most of us are given (or help create) a specification that defines what the finished project will be like. Consider this your outline that talks about each chapter and how the characters move around in it. And much like writing the pages of the novel takes time, writing a full application takes a while to code. This is changing even in our lifetimes, however. Frameworks exist that give the developer the ability to create fully functional applications in a short time. Consider this like having a library of plot snippets that you can freely take and insert into your novel. All that is left is to customize the look and flow between the parts. As this advances, I can easily see a future where “programmers’ just tell a system what they want, how they want it to look, and the resulting application is built for them.

Next we have the hackers. I will say that the term “hacker’ has many connotations and many of them are negative when they shouldn’t be. The word hacker itself is used to describe a group that enjoys the challenge of building new things. This can be that kid down the road that turned his wagon and lawnmower into an awesome go-cart, or even you as a writer. It also commonly talks about people who break software or computer security. Technically, this group should be called a cracker, but since using the term hacker to refer to this group is so common, I’ll bear it and follow suit.

Hackers have many different subsets and it’s hard to classify them as a group. I’ll touch on a couple of the subsets here, but I can’t touch on all of them. First, I’ll talk about the lower class members commonly (and usually derogatorily) called script kiddies. This group attacks using software or scripts obtained from various sources. While their methods are effective, they often do not understand the full mechanics of the attacks they are carrying out. They are quick to take advantage of systems that are out of date and not very well maintained, but are unable to penetrate well maintained systems that may not have any vulnerability already exploited. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a well organized group that gathered and used these scripts as a form of cyber-warfare.

The other side of that coin, and in my eyes the elite group, are the security experts. These are the members who write the code and find the exploits that the other groups use. This group looks the systems and start prodding them to try to figure out how they work. The simple way of looking at this group is like a spy attempting to enter an enemy’s base. They first scout it to determine how it’s configured and look at all the entrances. With enough information they can pretend to be someone else and walk through the front door, or learn the weak points and attack there. Most commonly, unlike the movies would have you believe, this process does not involve the user sitting at the login screen trying to guess the password. They involve lots of surveillance, analysis, and a great deal of luck.

There is one final group that should probably be included and that’s the social engineer. This is probably the most common type of hacker in television and tv. The social engineer doesn’t look at exploiting the computers, but rather the people who work on them. A social engineer attempts to deceive the users to give them information that can then be used to access the system. This information can be usernames, passwords, secret information concerning the infrastructure, or even just access to the secure systems themselves.

While this only briefly touches on these technological roles, I hope you find them useful in building your characters and perhaps making them a little more realistic. If you have any questions or comments, please ask them below!

Character Study – It’s All About Soles – Building a Character from the Ground Up

The funny thing about sitting with your eyes at street level is what you notice first. The other day I had some time before court and was sitting at a local DC pastry shop. The shop is on a slight hill, and most of it is below grade. As a result, the first thing I see out its window are shoes and pants cuffs. I decided to play, “make-up-a-stranger’s-life-story” based on what I could see. Ask any writer and I suspect he’ll tell you that he plays a version of “make-up-a-stranger’s-life-story” every time he goes out. It’s one of the ways that I come up with character descriptions.

While playing the game using shoes and the edges of pants, I realized how often quick assumptions were accurate. The shoes often did predict the rest of the outfit. A pair of scuffed, mud-splattered work boots pushed a rolling cart up the hill. Frayed light blue jeans hid the boot tops from view. When their owner made it further up the hill, I wasn’t surprised to see a gray-haired stoop shouldered man behind the cart. His face was as creased and lined as his faded blue jeans. The pair of trendy black and white sneakers over pristine blue jeans, on the other hand, belonged to a 20-something student or tourist.

When we create a character we have to visualize everything about him. Our readers need to see the entire character. Outfits matter. Despite the popularization of an unsustainable media image, a warrior princess shouldn’t be in three inch heels. The successful business man shouldn’t be wearing grubby sneakers on his way to work. As writers we can add depth to our characters by upsetting common stereotypes- no, not the racial profiling ones, the ones like a lawyer always should be in a suit and tie.

Writers vary in how much detail they write down in advance about their characters. Some of us do detailed character bios and interviews. Numerous software programs create mechanisms for us to record the information. You might not consciously think about what shoes your character is likely to wear, but your readers will know if you got it wrong. If you deviate from expectations – say, lawyers wear suits and dress shoes to court- you need a reason your readers will accept for the deviation. The scene in My Cousin Vinnie where Vinnie shows up in Court in a purple prom tux is great because the outfit is so ludicrous. It provides additional humor. The audience accepts the sight gag because we know his suit’s been destroyed and Vinnie explains what he had to do to find something not completely objectionable for court that day.

In creating character, shoes are one of those little details that matter. It’s not enough to know that your main character wears sneakers. You need to know whether the laces still have their aglets. Does he tie his shoes or are people always telling him to do so? Will those details make it into your story? Maybe. The fact that your character is always stopping to tie his shoes might be a plot device or character trait that lends depth and reality to your story.

As a writing experiment, go someplace where your vision is restricted like the basement pastry shop I was in before court. Puzzle out the rest of the outfit from on that first limited view of the person. Once you have an outfit, flesh out why your character chose those clothes that morning. Is she out sightseeing? Is she in uniform? Is she taking her son to the playground? Now, what in her life brought her to the moment you saw her? What happens next?

Writers get inspiration from all sorts of places. Sometimes even a fabulous pair of shoes.