Tuesday, June 29, 2010

World Building - Outside In or Inside Out

Taking a look at the prior posts on Creation Myths made me pause a minute. I'm up to the Imperial creation myths but, while I could create one whole cloth, it would spring from nothing. I don't know enough about them to really build that sort of thing. I know their customs, their manner, even a little of their architecture, but my novel has yet to really deal with them and so I can't do a creation myth justice just yet.

So perhaps a person can't simply do 'Creation Myths of my World' and knock them off one at a time. Perhaps world building has to be a bit messier where information on the local town causes a person to look up at the bigger picture and then come back down to Earth (figuratively speaking) again.

So I think I shall try from the bottom up. I will take it from a character perspective and from the perspective of the settings that are visited in my first novel: Port Vedic, Rosentia Island, and Port Saburo. I will take a look at the foreign characters and consider the places, customs, and peoples from where they sprang, rather than simply trying to understand everything at once.

What do you think?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Culture Shock!

I have found in my local library an incredibly useful world building source called the Culture Shock series (Survival Guides to Customs & Etiquette) and the Culture Wise series (The Essential Guide to Culture, Customs and Business Etiquette). You might be able to find them, or similar books, in the Travel section of your library. Why might they be useful, you ask?

Well, for those writing contemporary fiction, they’re useful because they can help you understand the backgrounds of certain characters in your fiction, particularly if your novel involves a lot of migrants, or is even set in another country. Historical writers will likely benefit from these books simply because they give you a basic idea of where the culture is now – and that might help you during your research of what they were like back then. Of course, proceed with caution as many customs may have changed due to influences of modern technology, international relations, and any number of other reasons.

For those who have to build an entire world, for their novel (science fiction and fantasy), these are a fabulous source of inspiration and ideas about other cultural perspectives. Instead of simply relying on the Modern White Western Medieval Perspective (a version of the medieval culture that has entered into modern popular culture and is likely quite inaccurate) for your fantasy novel, you can steep yourself in multiple cultures. You can examine the reasons behind their perspective, their customs and taboos, and see how they tie into the country in question. Then when you’re building your own world, you can edit and adapt existing customs that would already have a similar source. Your country is extremely hot, so perhaps even the slaves are allowed siestas in the shade, and there might even be water-bearers who ensure that there is water close at hand.

At the moment, I'm reading one on Tokyo, Beijing, Philippines, India, and Malaysia. I also have a dos & donts in the Philippines book. Ahh, a writer's reading list is never done...

Fundamental Attribution Errors

Livia did a blog post a while back about how fundamental attribution error influences readers. Fundamental attribution error describes how we attribute misbehavior (lateness, rudeness, etc.) made by other people to their personality, while attributing our own misbehavior to external circumstances. This is partly due to our intimate awareness of the circumstances surrounding our own mistakes but might know nothing about the circumstances surrounding someone else’s. She pointed out that an author can cause sympathy in a reader by letting the reader see the reasons behind an otherwise unlikable character’s actions. She suggests that understanding increases sympathy and decreases the fundamental attribution error. Trust a brain scientist to give us a clue about how our readers might realistically view our characters!

Thinking about fundamental attribution error also made me consider how it is important for writers’ to understand human psychology and be willing to let their protagonist’s make those kinds of mistakes. It is unrealistic to have a protagonist always correctly perceive the cause behind another’s actions – knowing if they are normally aggressive individuals or if there are simply tired, stressed, scared, and hungry. It is far more realistic, and more interesting, if the protagonist are allowed to make fundamental attribution errors.

Ed McBain (crime genre) and Robin Hobbs (fantasy genre) are experts at allowing their characters to misunderstand each other, such as by making fundamental attribution errors, and exploring the consequences of such misunderstandings.

In my drive to further understand some of the reasons behind rather unlikable hypocrisies, I also thought about how fundamental attribution errors may also give some insight into racist, sexist, classist (etc.). Perhaps we are more prone to empathising with those who are superficially similar to ourselves, and thus spend more time thinking of reasons why they did what they did.

Of course, this would be a very little piece of a very big puzzle involving the –isms. The various -isms also arise from a need to re-enforce (or undermine) existing power structures, clashes in cultural perspectives and mannerisms, bad encounters with misbehaving minorities from within a particular social group, historical bloodshed through war and conquest, and even language barriers. The –isms are also somewhat immune to the fundamental attribution error in that they can become internalised so that, for example, men might be more likely attribute their poor parenting skills to innate deficits and personality flaws, while a woman might focus on external factors such as lack of support, steep learning curves, and sleep deprivation.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Creation Myths – Part 2 (Catarthian ‘Divine Family’ Religion)

The Creation Myth

Once upon a time there was a God and Goddess. They thrilled in each others’ company and used the entire universe as a canvas for their imagination. Delighting in their ability to create, they painted everything into their universe until the layers and layers of paint became nonsense. The God saw this and realized the painting was nonsense and so he declared that the universe be wiped clean so that he could use his learned skills to do much better.
But the Goddess loved her world more than her husband, and the chaos of her painting infected her, so when God cleared the canvas of creation, the Goddess wept and scorned him, gathering up the threads of this place before God could clean it all, and hiding it away.

God offered her something new to salve her pain. To help order their wild creations, they should create two new Gods, and to do so he took two pebbles and placed them in the Goddess. Their Divine Children were also infected by the chaos, the female aspect being more tainted than the male, as she took after her mother, and he their father. Yet together they painted a perfect world upon the canvas where all made sense and all existed in harmony.

But the Goddess was not content with this. She was bitter that the others exalted in paradise while she stewed in regret and grief for her lost world. She whispered into the ears of her children of a promise land and offered to show them a better way. Her son rejected her notions and went to seek out his father, while her daughter – who was pregnant with the next generation of gods – went with her and gazed into the mad tangle. The pollution of her mind was too much for her to bear and she fled back into the world of perfection, tearing it and tainting it as she went.

The first God saw the destruction but instead of weeping he called them all together and he declared that one more universe would be created to house the creatures of paradise while it was being fixed. He also swore that for her meddling, the first Goddess would be banished to the edges of the cosmos where she soon set to playing with her hellish world. Finally, with the birth of the final Gods, for the first God swore there would be no further Gods, a third universe was made.

This universe was weak and hastily made as it was only meant to be a temporary measure. The third God, the Divine Son, had to march its borders to defend it from his mad Grandmother. He followed the instruction of the Father who was eldest and wisest of them now that the Grandfather was busy repairing paradise. The Mother, guilty over having broken paradise through her failure to trust the Grandfather, bowed her head to the Gods and became an nurturer to the third world, obeying the wise male Gods. The Daughter, having been made ‘innocent’ and ‘simple’ due to her exposure to the Grandmother’s perverse world.
For those who do not assist the Grandmother’s attempts to damage the true laws, there will be life ever-lasting in the paradise of Grandfather’s creation.

What is this creation myth based upon?

Well, the Sen Dalians’ view of the gentle Family twisted as they became more militaristic. As the might makes right philosophy began to take root, the physically strong took control in order to protect their families from the increasingly militaristic people around them, and in doing so, they also began to enshrine the violent soldier’s code. They required a religion that was more in line with justifying male superiority, feminine weakness, and discouraging dangerous emotions that might upset the status quo. They also needed something to explain why life was so harsh and to promise a reward for those who toiled.

They needed an evil figure and their vilified the Grandmother as her cults were the most tenacious amongst the people and her original practices revolved around medicine and teaching those of lesser station, which was the most dangerous to the status quo. This creation myth doesn’t justify cruelty to any other human being, however, simply that each person has their place and should be proud of their place. An ordered society is a healthy society.

History of the creation myth

The Sen Dalians embraced this creation myth over a thousand years ago though it has obviously changed somewhat over the years. When the tribes of the Realms began coalescing under warlord states, shortly before the Chelian aristocracy, Sen Dalian merchants brought their new religion to the continent. It was resisted at first, but after a successful invasion of the northern parts of the Realms by the Sen Dalians (that lasted about 70 years), the religion soon spread.

Part 3 will be the Imperials Creation Myth ….

Creation Myths – Part 1 (Velastant ‘Divine Family’ Religion)

The Creation Myth

Once upon a time, the universe was filled with mud as land and water mixed. The mud spawned many things but they soon drowned in the chaos of the time. A long time ago in the past and in the future, came the Gardener who crawled through the mud. The Gardener whispered promises to the mud of all the beautiful things that could fill the universe and how those beautiful things would forever worship the land and water that sprung them forth. The Mud fell in love with the Gardener’s visions and spread apart so that the land became sturdy and the water became clear.
Still the Gardener was drowning for he could not breathe land or water. He prayed to the Land and Water and begged for space to breathe and move about so that he could bring about the beauty of their blessings. The Land and Water distrusted each other and were already unhappy with their lack of control in the other’s dominion. So the Gardener suggested they birth Air to flow between them and ensure that the Land must give way to the Water and the Water to the Land in cycles that give each one some time in that place.
The Land and Water agreed and gave birth to Air but Air was quite powerful and blew the Land and Water into a small tight ball and took up the rest of the cosmos for itself. Air was inside the ball as well and it blew and blew so hard that the Land and Water were always mixing. Land and Water were horrified so the Gardener fashioned a mirror from the Land and held it up to Water and from Water’s reflection sprung its opposite, Fire.
The Gardener plucked up sparks of Fire and tossed them up into the Air to pin it in place. The Gardener then dug holes into the Land and put Fire into the world’s belly to compete with Air and control the quakes and keep the Air inside the world from meeting and conspiring with the Air outside the world. Thus whenever the Air shook parts of the world and ripped holes in the Land and Water, Fire would rush up in its watery form to plug the gaps.
Now the world was steady, the Gardener took the biggest spark of Fire that he had reserved for a throne in the sun. Yet sitting upon the throne of fire influenced the Gardener’s thoughts, for it was so far away, and so bright. The Gardener saw the influence it had and thought it trouble for who could withstand the influence of their vantage point? So then the Gardener tricked Land through its vanity by whispering tales of the beauty of the world and how wonderful it would be to see itself, and formed it into a throne in the sky, as the moon, and set it so that at times it would be basked in the light of the sun to warm the Gardener, and other times it would be in the shade of the land to cool the Gardener.
From these two vantage points, the Gardener saw that all was not yet beautiful. The Gardener then took Land and Water and sculpted them into animals and plants, to which he breathed in Air and invested a spark of Fire to keep warm and alive. The Gardener swapped between moon throne and sun throne during the sculpting of each creature so that the twin perspectives could lead to creatures that might thrive upon the land. The Gardener soon realized that to take the dual perspectives to their true complexity, a month had to be spent upon the lunar throne, and a full day upon the solar throne, so that the Gardener could be influenced by the light and dark of the lunar throne, and the tilt upon the land on the solar throne.
The Gardener built these influences into the creations so that they would be born into the freshness of dawn / new moon, grow and procreate in the industriousness of noon / full moon, and grow aged and ready to pass on one’s knowledge and die in the darkness of dusk / no moon. In death, they were then reborn, to pass through the perspectives of each creature. The Gardener even placed divine essence into each object, place, and non-sentient creature, and that essence became a spirit to imbue it.

Yet there were two creatures that rejected the divine essence for they had no need of a guiding spirit for they already had a spirit of their own that was a part of them and allowed them intelligence beyond measure. These were the humans and the orcs.

What is this creation myth based upon?

While this myth has its roots in a religion that is several thousand years old and from the Sen Dales, in truth this version has been adapted so much that it is both uniquely Realms and uniquely modern. Vast stretches of the Realms reject human intervention, giving it a timeless feel, and many of the Realms people still believe in cyclical time rather than linear time – where what was, will be again. Thus the God and Goddess are both simultaneously in their three aspects and yet constantly travel between them at the same time. The recent re-examination of gendered attributes now that physical differences have assumed lesser importance, combines with the language groups’* need for stable and easily definable roles (though there had always been some adjustment made for skill).

This duality has led to the Diving Being being simultaneously embodiments of gendered archetypes (the God and the Goddess) and a single divine entity (alternately called the Creator, Gardener or Sarin). Thus, men are capable of embodying feminine aspects and women are capable of embodying masculine aspects. It is only that one’s lifespan leads to certain duties and influences that must pull a person further in line with their gender. By this religion, exceptions can and should exist, and a person is most holy if they are capable of transcending limitations and being both God and Goddess, young and old, so that they might bring all lessons and skills to bear. While this is the ideal, it is not assumed that anyone is capable of doing this completely, and that is accepted as understandable.

This creation myth does frown upon compartmentalizing people entirely into parental role (grandparent, parent, child) or gender role (male or female) as that is considered unnatural. If a woman behaves like a man than she simply embodies more of the masculine aspect than she does of the feminine aspect, and while this is unusual, it is natural to her state of being. If it were natural for her to behave otherwise, than she would behave otherwise, and while attempting to influence her towards balance is commendable, it is wrong to expect that she should change her behavior.

* The Realms originally didn’t contain tribes and there aren’t many words in English to represent their actual old systems of governance.

History of the creation myth

This is thought to be the traditional creation myth behind a religion which is a few thousand years old but, in truth, the original mythology was lost when the early Sen Dalian cities were ransacked. Numerous variants trickled into the Realms when the first Sen Dalians migrated there in search of new land and the many tribes that then formed in the Realms each had their own version that developed steadily over the years. The religion was suppressed for a time under the Catarthian religious movement but, now that the might makes right philosophy has dissipated in the Realms, has started making in-roads as it meshes more easily with current Realms viewpoints.

Next up will be the Catarthian ‘Divine Family’ Religion….

My Fantasy Universe

Well, I think I'll go through my world-building online. Partly because I'll never info-dump enough to share half of it in my books when I get published (fingers crossed) and partly because there might be other world builders out there who'd like to see how other people do it. I'll try to keep it short and snappy. Tell me if I get long-winded. This is on the basics of how Earth-like I'm making the universe and solar system.

To make things simpler on myself, and because I don’t want to study astronomy, I decided to make my other world quite earth-like. There is but one moon, about the same size as our moon, and only one sun, about the same size as our sun, and they are both about as far from the planet as their real world equivalents. There are ten planets in the solar system and they are a bit different, with their own names and number of moons, but they’re only likely to come up as mentions during alchemical talks (and even then, only maybe) so I didn’t go into much more detail with them rather than risk getting the solar system wrong. The stars are suns burning billions of kilometers away, though different races think otherwise.

The primary difference is that this is animistic world. There is a spirit in everything of varying ages and strengths. Some of these spirits can materialize from their physical anchor. Some can free themselves of it and clothe themselves in flesh (the sidhe) and even forget that they were anything but creatures of meat and matter. Some mostly exist in the in-between-places that are not in the world of matter, yet not devoid of it, like pocket realms that exist where nothing else should. These can be an oasis behind a desert tree, a Narnia in a closet, or a hiding place in a shadow.

In space, the spirits are ancient and unchanging beings, hostile to life, that slither between the black spaces and coil in the hearts of ancient suns. They sometimes crash to this world on the meteors or are summoned to this planet and whenever this happens, devastation soon follows. These are monstrous and unknowable though some confuse them for a God that may never have even existed. These beings do not comprehend life as we understand it. Some would toy with us. Some destroy us or craft us anew. Some simply wouldn’t notice us but their presence would be as bad. Some say that the dragons were spawned from these places and that they took flight to our planet so long ago – either from a place of monsters or another living planet that suffered some long-lost calamity. They came to our world, slipping through the in-between-places and laying claim to territories that they could control on an almost base level. But then, few claim to have seen a dragon, so perhaps they are but a myth.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Character Therapist looks at The Butterfly Lady

Well, after seeing Jeannie Campbell's wonderful blog, I couldn't help myself. I just had to submit details on one of my own characters. Now if you've come from the far-flung future where I have published The Butterfly Lady, you might not want to track down the post and read it as it has horrific levels of spoilers for the entire first book. If you're dying of curiosity, future-readers (c'mon, let me dream), then go purchase the future-published-book and THEN read it.

For people from my unfortunately unpublished present, go and take a look. She's got a very interesting way of looking at the character which I like very much. It has also helped simply to write out the character's history and see just how much trauma I've put him through so far.... I am a terrible, terrible person.
If 'Justin' ever comes to life, he will hunt me to my dying days.

Until then, though, so long! Back to work.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Discerning culture to discern motivation

Well. I just got a rather clever crit that pointed out something I hadn't noticed beforehand. Inconsistent motivation ... inconsistent behavior ... who is this nurse, anyway? What is she after? What is she doing? I'm lucky enough that the critter has enough confidence in me to assume that I knew all of the answers and simply hadn't revealed enough through the writing.

Er, thanks for the compliment, but ... no.

No, I just realized that I had never sat down and really tried to get inside her head. I have been guilty of letting a vitally important character fall into the role of cipher. A simple series of plot points ... a convenient enabler for my plot. This isn't far for her because I know she has far more depth than I have given her credit for.

I could simply interview her character or perhaps daydream about her. Who was she? Where did she come from? Just by vaguely trying to tap into her I see that she has a sister she left behind who was overtaken by the salts. I see that she has been betrayed before. I can't see anything more than that.

I think I need to go back further than simply understanding her, however. She isn't human. She comes from an entirely different culture, a whole other worldview, and I wouldn't be doing her credit if I examined her answers through character interviewing through the lens of just another Realms human.

To understand the sidhe, I will have to go back further, though. I will have to start at the beginning of the world's history and work my way down. Thus, from now on, I will have installments on world building as I take us both on a journey to the sidhe mentality.

Are you ready and willing to come with me?

Top 15 Things I Generally Like In Fiction

Well, well, the fascinating Blog, Merc Rants pointed out a very clever gem in Chris Baty's writing advice book, No Plot, No Problem. Chris Baty suggests coming up with what he calls your Magna Carta - a list of what you like in novels and what you dislike. So, I'm going to do up mine. The first part will be based on the top 15 stuff, in no particular order, that I like in fiction.

1. Apocalypses I'm not sure why this grabs my fancy but it always does. I'm less a fan of the lawless-society trope though I am happy to read a splintered society one. The apocalypses that really make be happy are those on a biblical level. Surreal, supernatural, and all-consuming are all bonuses. Stephen King's 'The Mist' where there may, or may not, be any place left on the planet free of the monsters; and various zombie apocalypses are the more obvious versions. I think it's because the attention is kept strictly personal, on a group of individuals finding hope in an essentially hopeless situation. I'm also, sadly, a fan of the logistics of being a survivalist. How do they get enough food, medicine, water, and other supplies? How do they barricade themselves in? Where?

2. Voyeurism One thing that makes me a fan of both video games and apocalypse daydreams is the idea of being able to walk into people's homes just to see what it looks like. Yes, I'm weird. What wannabe author isn't? I'm curious about places and the histories of those places. Even boring places. What does a cement factory look like? A police station? What is that electrical cabinet actually called? What does a fantasy mill look like? Most people skip the details entirely, for fear of getting it wrong, or of bogging down the text. You don't need to feed me a lot to keep me happy. Just a few dribs and drabs. The correct name for a particular room, a protagonist leaned up against an oil drum, the correct terminology for items and equipment (though you might need to carefully use this in context for those who aren't as scholarly.

3. Natural Disasters Especially tornadoes. Did you know that every few years I have a dream about tornadoes? Either running away from them, helping evacuate people to safety, normally ending with me hiding in a dirt tunnel underground. I never get scared in these dreams. Just filled with a sense of awe and wonder. It helps that I'm unlikely to ever see one in Australia. It's not just tornadoes that fascinate me. Hurricanes, bush fires, earth quakes, etc. It's not enough to simply have it happen. I want to see how people prepare to one, how it impacts the world in its wake, and how people adapt to it afterwards. I want to see the little details. I want to understand it.

4. Moral Gray-Scale. As painful as it is, I like being able to understand the twisted depths of all the characters. Their justifications are often more interesting, and painful to read about, than showing them cackle manically while torching orphanages.

5. Causing pain to a loved one. I can watch a dozen horror movies about serial killers and monsters devouring people but I still flinch when I see a friend perform necessary amputations without anaesthetic. Its a fate many have suffered, something I can imagine might happen to myself, and I can more easily relate to both victims (as the poor fool with the saw must feel pretty bad as well).

6. Evil for a good cause. There's a reason why the cults in the Project Zero series (videogames) were far more fascinating than the ones in most others. They did terrible, horrible things, often to willing participants, to keep something worse from happening. It's not enough for them to simply think it's for 'the greater good', but when it truly is, it's horrifying.

7. Symbolism. Much in horror benefits from good symbolism. Humans think and feel in symbols. A nightmare world that shifts according to its master's needs / sins / desires. A monster that reflects some of humanity's greatest fears in its physiology (i.e. werewolves reflect loss of control, vampires used to reflect fear of contamination).

8. Struggling against one's inner nature. A demon fighting against its sinful nature. A monster seeking redemption. A man struggling against his cursed heritage. Someone seeking to overthrow their abusive histories to break the cycle of violence. I'm not as much of a fan of people hiding from their pasts, though. People who have chosen, off their own back, to do evil and then changed their mind or were redeemed or whatever. I don't hate this plot arc. I'm just not attracted to these plots.

9. The survivor. Y'know that character, normally a minor one, that goes through hell and back and survives a massive beating? I love that character. I will root for that character. Once a character has survived enough, they really should be allowed to live.

10. Ships. Ever since I started reading nautical fiction, both fantasy ones - Robin Hobb's The Liveship Traders - and various Napoleon-era historical ones, I've become a sucker for anything on a ship.

11. Underwater stuff. I think the ocean is one big, unexplored mass of brightly colored things that can kill you. What's not to love? Describe it well enough to make me feel like I'm there and I'll love it.

12. Connected Protagonists, preferably with a younger sister or child. I don't mind an orphan protagonist but I find it hard to relate to an orphan that's got no real responsibilities to their attachments. Normally such relatives are just a chapter one issue that chapter two will sort out. I think that's a shame. Y'know what's got more conflicts and trouble than looking out for yourself (and you're well-armed, well-equipped compatriots)? Having to raise your younger sibling or kid friend or what-not! The movies made me a sucker for it (Grave of the Fireflies, for example).

13. Ghosts, zombies, and other undead things. What can I say? I like them. They're creepy as sin. I think it's just because I'm stubborn so I appreciate stubbornness. What's more stubborn than refusing to die? Also, genres involving the undead often do quite well with tragedy. I draw the line at vampiric angst, however. It's more tragic when people are trying to make the best of a bad situation, in my opinion, rather than brooding about something that happened decades ago.

14. Demons, hell, and embodiments of sin. This is partly due to number 8. Struggling against one's inner evil; and no. 7 symbolism. I'm not as much of a fan of the religious hell of fire and pain. I prefer a more personalized form of hell, such as can be found in the classic novel, Dante's Inferno. Dante used symbolic representations of fitting punishments for sin quite well. Even demons that are flat-out evil also work well as monsters - they're ancient beings who have reason to truly despise us. How is that not going to be a problem?

15. Culture Shocks. Nothing highlights how a culture works more than when two cultures collide. Even in a peaceful encounter, the differences between how they meet and greet, do business, and date can be quite interesting. This goes doubly for fantasy worlds - particularly those where most people rarely leave their village.

So, that's a list of basics that attract me irrationally to a tale. What about the rest of you? Feel tempted to try it out?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Swapping perspectives to give characters depth

I spent some time today editing Chapter 5 of the Butterfly Lady and I came across a rather dull conversation where the protagonist stereotypically sympathized with a group that had been reviled as human-hating monsters (the Unseelie Court) who were so tainted by evil they were doomed to become demons. It wasn't a bad viewpoint. It made sense. There were reasons why the monsters could be considered sympathetic.

They were, after all, evil because they had chosen to stay and defend an increasingly toxic homeland rather than flee to greener pastures. The toxic nature of the land, known in my story as the Ihlander salt plains, had corrupted them. There's a certain element of the tragic in that which could invoke sympathy.
So my protagonist, predictably enough, is sympathetic towards their predicament.

Of course, to do this I ignored the fact that he was raised by a member of the Seelie Court when his mother had died. I ignored the fact that he would have been given at least a light dose of indoctrination. No, no, he's the protagonist and thus automatically sympathizes with their plight. While this is possible, it's hardly interesting, and was so predictable that the scene was dull because of it.

So I swapped the viewpoint of my protagonist with a spoiled nine-year-old kid who is a fan of gothic horror stories. The kid who loves gothic horror, of tragic pasts, evil destiny, and the rest, manages to see what the protagonist doesn't - that the Unseelie Court might be monsters, but they're sad and pathetic monsters who should be pitied. This simple switch breathed so much more life into the scene.

The conversation showed the protagonists' arrogance (he expected the kid's argument would be weak), the protagonist's flexibility and capacity for humility (rather than doggedly resisting the point, he could accept that it was a point well-made), made the exposition more interesting and removed the sense of lecturing (history lesson was vital but goody-two-shoes protagonist made it dull), and the interplay will make it far more understandable when the protagonist makes a certain decision later on in the novel.

The motto of the anecdote: Sometimes a writer has forced words in their protagonist's mouth. If a scene just doesn't ring true to you, perhaps see what happens when you swap the characters' perspectives.

Did your character mean to give that first impression?

Reading Caroline Kauffman's interesting article on Impression Management spoke about how people try to leave a certain impression and can sometimes fail horribly. For example, I might think that I look confidant and suave in my three-piece suit and sunglasses but others might think I look stodgy, unfashionable, sexy, or eccentric. It's such a fun source of conflict that people don't use nearly as much as they should. Sit-coms and comedians do it all the time. They understand that the contrast between the impression that a character thinks they leave on people (tough guy) and the actual impression (whiney kid) can be incredibly entertaining.

I had a think about my own novel and realized that there are several entertaining moments (at least I think so) in my story that revolves around this. The most obvious one involves the lad who wants to appear as a dashing gentleman who'd sweep any lady off their feet ... and comes across as a leering adolescent who quotes other people's poetry poorly. There's also the young woman who firmly believes she's coming across as an empathic and friendly companion who can truly understand who people are ... and comes across as an emotionless and creepily overly-analytical ethereal being.

Do you have any characters who leaves a decidedly different first impression than the one they intended? Is it humorous? Or have you managed to do it in a way that's more serious or sinister?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Writing and Illustrating Blog

So I figure I'm safe, right? There I am, having come from A Brain Scientist's blog, having learned a whole new thing to keep an eye out for with editing, and BAM, I come across an article on chapter endings. It even has a handy list of example endings to help make the story a page turner. The rest of the blog looks really interesting too. Will it never end?

The Brain Scientist's Blog

Well, this is more than a little bit annoying. There I am, scanning through the various blogs on the blogoverse and I come across this site full of interesting tidbits on writing from a self-confessed brain scientist's point of view. Innocently I take a look ... only to find an article that gives me yet another really good angle to edit by. Like my editing list isn't long enough.

So now I have to go over my story and make sure that each one of my characters, from minor to major, make a first impression. I should also bother to figure out what kind of a first impression each one gives. *sigh* I'm going to run out of highlighter pens!

Rationalizing Evil

Over at Critique Circle, I've come to realize through my critiques that I have a great interest in why good, or even mediocre, people do bad things. It's so easy to shrug and go, "They allow / do this because they're sadistic / sociopathic. They know precisely what they're doing and what the consequences are for other people. They're just insert-vice-here." I think that does a great mis-service to those crimes, the victims, and even the victimizers. We won't learn anything by tarring our villains with black paint. We won't be able to teach ourselves and our future generations to avoid pitfalls of thinking that led to such horrible events as the Holocaust, human slavery, and the small-scale acts of horror like rape and murder.

After all, if we say that villains do what they do because they're cold-hearted and evil, or raving sadists, then all we need to do to check our own morality and beliefs is to go 'Does my conscience hurt me at times?' If I tick yes, then I can't be a sociopath or a sadist. I have a conscience, after all. The problem comes because a conscience isn't enough.

One psychological experiment (Milgram's experiment) had an actor convince an unwary volunteer (we'll call her Amy) that they were going to be involved in a memory test. The scientist would ask another 'volunteer' (who was actually an actor, let's call him Stuart) to submit to being strapped in a chair and electrodes were placed on him. Amy was then told to apply the punishment, an electric shock, when commanded. The scientist then asked Stuart questions and every time he got it wrong, Amy was told to shock him. Not only that, Amy was told to increase the voltage. After awhile, Stuart began to beg for freedom, scream in pain and, finally, he stopped responding at all and feigned unconsciousness.

So, in this scenario, would a right-minded person with a conscience stop?

The majority of volunteers brought into this experiment generally didn't.

It wasn't that they didn't care. Sometimes they would plead with the scientist to stop the experiment or even cry as they turned up the dial. They showed distress or reported it later. Yet many of them continued to follow orders. They weren't being paid to do it. The scientist didn't have a gun to their head. They could have left at any time.

There are many reasons why many of the participants continued with the shocks. Here are some interpretations:

Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority. They thus justify their actions.

People who lack either ability or expertise to make decisions often leave decision making to the group and its heirarchy, especially in a crisis.

Once a person views himself as simply an instrument for carrying out another person's wishes, they can dissolve responsibility for their actions, and this helps enforce their obedience.

Perhaps it is due to cumulative experiences where people learn that when an expert says something is right, it probably is, even if it doesn't feel right. i.e. medicine that tastes like poison but helps you.
Then there's learned helplessness. They might feel powerless to control the outcome and thus abdicate their responsibility.

And these are just possibilities for the obedient 'bad guys'.

Of course, not all justifications have to be good excuses for our ears and some might even be subconscious.

A rapist could justify his actions by legitimately thinking women aren't human, women don't have souls, women have an unlimited amount of 'sex' and thus it can't be stolen (Robin Hobb has a villain who thinks that), it's no worse than getting in a fight, it's not worse than scraping your knee, it doesn't hurt anyone, a man can't control his urges (abdicating responsibility), she provoked me out of cruelty so I showed her she can't just do that to me, I deserve to have sex with her, she owes me for all that she's done, or even, she desired it but she just couldn't admit it to herself.

Slavery might be justified by thinking the race will die out anyway now its met a superior race, the race can't take care of itself and we're just providing structure, the race isn't human, it's God's will that some people should take care of other people, the race would do the same to us if the situation was reversed, everyone else is doing it so we'll go bankrupt if we don't join in, or they prefer to be slaves, really.

People might do something without realizing the consequences (i.e. sending a boy up a chimney to sweep it) and then continue doing it. Once those consequences reveal themselves (i.e. sickness, boy dies in your chimney), a person might seek to avoid responsibility and therefore guilt by refusing to acknowledge they did anything wrong. After all, to stop doing something for moral reasons, you have to realize that your prior actions are immoral. That would require facing up to a lot of guilt! And what if your parents used to do it? If you acknowledge that it's a terrible thing, then you have to acknowledge that your parents have done terrible things. Then you have to feel ashamed of both yourself and your family! That's a whole lot of negative feeling and for what 'reward'?

I think the easiest way to take a look at how the bad guys might rationalize something is to take a look at how you or your friends rationalize things. Think of the times you've shop lifted, cheated on someone, hurt someone's feelings for no reason, were negligent, thoughtless, allowed a loved one to struggle rather than help out (even if just with the chores while they were sick) or were hypocritical. Double points if you pick a recent act.

How do you justify that? Is it justified? If it's not, how painful is it to acknowledge that fact?

So my pledge to you, as a writer, is this. I will not shy away from the bad people and diminish the cruelty in this world by presuming that only evil people do evil things. I will be brave enough to think 'but for the grace of God, there goes I' and imagine how I (or someone else) might come to be in their shoes.

Who will pledge with me?

P.S. Robin Hobb is really, really good at giving no-barred accounts of how mean people might actually see the world. It's painful...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

When blogs help characters 'click'

There I am, absent-mindedly scrolling through the archives of The Character Therapist when I found an article on Balanced Parenting. I'm reading along and thinking about some of the other books and topics on the subject that I've read during my psychology degree, as I often do while reading her blog, when I suddenly have a minor epiphany.

The main character in one of my novels has two fathers. One is stern and distant; the other is moody and irritable. Neither of them are good fathers ... in fact, they've only been trying to be fathers for the past few months. For years they had both ignored the opportunity for one reason or another. So I got to thinking, why not give them distinctive parenting styles? One can be an authoritarian task-master while the other is the permissive diplomat. Badda bing! Genuine conflict.

Of course, originally I thought my stern accountant would be the authoritarian one. He fits the profile. He's very self-restrained and finds it difficult to express himself. Naturally he'd be over-controlling as he overly controls himself. The moody and irritable artist is used to a chaotic existence so he'd be permissive. I mean, he already lets the boy talk about whatever it is he wants to talk about.

But then I thought: why not go against the obvious? And the moment I did that, the idea made more sense. Why would a moody artist who's used to getting his own way, who's never had anyone to watch over him, and who manages to form some meaning out of his day-to-day life by clinging to certain structures around him, be permissive? Why would someone like that trust that an individual can grow into a wonderful young man just by being allowed to thrive in a safe environment? He's seen the debauchery and the excesses. He's also seen how much the lad is like him. Why wouldn't he over-controlling?

On the other hand, the self-restrained account knows that a person can find the strength they need within themselves to do what needs to be done. He also knows that he finds it difficult to be emotionally available and is wracked by guilt for it. Surely he should want to do anything he can to help the boy bloom without crippling the child with his own issues?

So there you have it. Sometimes turning norms and expectations on their head actually makes more sense. Perhaps the reason why so many stereotypes seem shallow in novels is that the author forces certain expectations onto characters in ways that just don't many any sense.

Voyeuristic Explorers Unite!

Reading this article on QueryTracker about branding, I've started thinking about who I write for. Namely, myself, and people like me. In other words, Reader Me. But who is Reader Me? Being bored, ill, and trying to find justifications to get out of packing up in time for our big move, I decided to take a look at the various Media Mes that are out there.

First up is Videogame Me. The Bartle Test would label me an Explorer! Survival horrors are my favorite due to their surreal use of horror affecting their landscapes but I'm also partial to an RPG or a Shooter in a nice locale as I just love to take a look around. When gaming, I'm cautiously creeping forward, sniping, avoiding, or ambushing enemies where possible, and saving often, just so I can see the next bit. I often explore just about every part of the map just to see if there's anything interesting in that dead end. I like a strong sense of place - a sense of being someplace real (even a virtual version) because I'd never be allowed to go there in person. I think another part of Videogame Me is the voyeur. Its why I'll never interrupt an NPC conversation if I can eavesdrop.

I'd like to say that the other Reader Me and Movie Me are more mature than Videogame Me. That's not true, though. They're just more voyeuristic. Movie Me, at least, can be distracted by glitz 'n graphics, with cutting edge explosions and fast movement to distract me. Still, Movie Me likes to get a look inside places I'd never see just to see what they'd look like - whether out in space or even in the past. Same can be said for TV Me, though TV Me is quite weak and underfed, since there's only a rare few television series that can hold my attention (Robin Hood, Supernaturals, Heroes, Green Wings, Scrubs).

Reader Me is the
most voyeuristic of all. Reader Me isn't just happy with seeing places I shouldn't see or pretending to do things I shouldn't be doing. No, Reader Me also wants to get inside people's heads and hear their thoughts and know their back stories. Reader Me likes to watch people's internal struggles up close and personal. I also like to know multiple perspectives at times so that I can know precisely what triggered that misunderstanding. What makes it even better is that I can couple voyeurism into people's minds with exploring other places - so I can even see how certain places react to people and vice versa!

Now you tell me that i
sn't awesome!

So ... I guess that m
eans my personal brand is to attract voyeurs and explorers. People who have always wanted to see what's over that hill, who are attracted to the graffitti-strewn rubble of a partially wrecked building, and who have always wanted to back pack around the country because you never quite notice enough when its blurring by you in a car. People who want to know what makes people tick, who've always wondered WHY a person would do that, or HOW they could justify their actions. Throw in a sense of the tragic and a morbid fascination with BAD things like wars and plagues and human cruelty, and you have my Media Me and thus my brand of fantasy writing.

Now all I need is a logo...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Character Therapist Blog

Now this is a very interesting idea. A blog based around psychological theory. The blogger is Jeannie Campbell and she talks about character psychology, the impact of disorders, traumas, and many a wonderful thing. As a psychology honours graduate, this site interests me a great deal, and I fully expect to spend many hours procrastinating, err ... learning from this blog.

So if you're curious as to how alcoholism or abuse might affect your character, what treatment plans might be used, and various other assorted gems, go to The Character's Therapist. If you ask real nicely, Jeannie Campbell might even take a look at your particular character. I sure will be there!

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Sense of Place

I think one of the most interesting parts of fantasy is to really get a sense of being somewhere else. It all boils down to evoking a sense of place and that made me consider doing something that I haven't done since my Communications course at university: participant observation. What is it, you ask? Well, it's great that you asked (you being my one silent lurker, *sigh*). Wikipedia describes ethnographies as a tool used for gathering empirical data on human societies/cultures. Sound exciting? It sure is!

Now, for authors of contemporary fiction to do a participation observation, all you've got to do is get permission to visit a location of interest and then quietly sit and observe the place/people as they go about their daily life. A person might just take a seat in a bar, shopping center, or any other place, and just pay attention to how people interact around you. Then you go home and write what you observed in a way that evokes that sense of place while attempting to stick to what you literally observed rather than making inferences about what your observation meant.

As a fantasy author, participant observations are still useful because a greater understanding of group dynamics is always beneficial. Sure the context and specifics may change, but the behaviors found in the quiet misery of a doctor's office might also apply to members of a particularly miserable religious congregation.

The other option for fantasy writers is to do a participant observation in your mind. This is good for visual daydreamers. Just close your eyes, mentally take a seat, and simply watch the various people wander around. Pay attention to what you can see, smell, hear. Watch how they interact. Normally when we're writing we're so busy juggling a dozen different thoughts in our heads that we never get to simply immerse ourselves in the imagery. Here is an opportunity.

Ahem, so while this might be yet another example of me inventing peculiarly high-brow forms of procrastination instead of either doing my writing or editing, I still think that it would be helpful.

The Bookshelf Muse blog

Well, I'm a chatty monkey this week. I guess I can blame the influenza for that. My poor volunteers are going to have to co-ordinate themselves for now... Anywho, the purpose of this post is to draw your eye to a really nice blog's idea. Angela Ackerman, of The Bookshelf Muse, who has the really good idea of doing up a Setting Description Thesaurus. What she has done is taken a location, such as an Emergency Room, and listed a few dozen different descriptions that can fall into each one of the five sense categories, making it easier for folk to paint a picture - even if they've never been there!

I think it's a wonderful idea. In future, when I'm not so darn sick, I'll probably do a few myself to add to my bulging folder of Curse of the Rose world-building stuff. If it works for real life, why not fantasy as well?

She also has Emotion Thesaurus, Symbol Thesaurus, and other interesting stuff. So take a look.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Seeing is Believing: Describing the Character

People communicate in symbols. The words we use. The metaphors we refer toward. We portray images of ourselves using expectations and wear our hair and clothing according to certain standards that can reflect the kind of person we want to be seen as (which isn't necessarily the same as who we are). Yet when it comes to describing our characters, many of us consider this a simple and prosaic process of simply recording basic details. At best we do it from the perspective and biases of the protagonist. Very rarely do we give thought to how much we can explore about the character themselves in so few words.

Which'd be the difference between 'The
tall, slender, blonde woman wore a red evening gown', 'The woman I wanted was the tall, slim blond in the red evening gown', and 'The dazzling red evening gown hugged the blonde woman's lovely curves in all the right places'.

Other than the fact that the third one is just better written (in my opinion), it also packs a lot more information within it. The first, bleh. Just the facts, ma'am. It's honestly neither here nor there. The second one is good enough. Tells us a lot about what's on the protagonist's mind and, depending on the context, a bit about his personality. Whether it's a professionally detached line from a business-like cop or a sleazy line from a bachelor on the prowl, it says something about him. Says little about her. In the last example, we know the evening gown is a dazzling red and is sculpted to her features just right suggests a woman who both wants to be noticed in a particular way and has the money to pay for a tailored dress. The image also invokes a woman with confidence and class - the assets are revealed by tight clothing but skin hugging clothing doesn't necessarily suggest a lot of bare skin.

On another note, every one of those lines would also fit in a hard-boiled private detective novel. The third one most of all. So I guess you can even put across genre in your character descriptions.

These are all good reasons to avoid super purple-prose in your character descriptions. At the very least, the reader will presume that the point of view character thinks like that, and how many people can empathize with someone who describes themselves as:

'Jacinta's azure eyes flashed like the sun off the ocean as she brushed several stands of hair as glossy black as a raven wing back from a porcelain cheek'.

It just comes off as hopelessly narcissistic!

So yes, in the design phase of your characters, think about why they look how they do. What are they trying to prove about themselves? What are they trying to hide? It isn't necessarily the style of the clothes that tell the most about them. Someone with ironed on creases suggests a very different personality to someone with grass stains on their knees or dirt on their back. In the editing phase, just try to make sure each one of the character descriptions are as evocative of as many things as they can be with as few words as possible.

There ... that isn't so hard, is it?

Monday, June 7, 2010

World Building Link

One of the best world building set of questions out there is on the Science Fiction / Fantasy Writer's Association web-site. It's pretty substantial, will take you awhile to get through, and there are doubtless questions that either don't need answering at this time, or are simply irrelevant to your tale, but its comprehensive take on world-building will still be helpful.

At some point soon, I promise, I'll put up some of my compendium of world building. That way you guys can have a laugh, I mean, take a look.

Limyaeels' Fantasy Rant Livejournal Link

A must-see set of rants against certain irritating aspects of fantasy novels. Limyael makes it not only entertaining but informative too as she gives the fantasy genre the dressing down it sometimes so justly deserves.

Click here to take a look.

I think what I like about Limyael the most is the frequent pleas for authors to shake things up a bit in the genre. The blogger doesn't just talk about what was done wrong but also mentions a dozen different directions that could be taken. Thus the livejournal is really good for authors who are looking for inspiration, plot seeds, or just a new perspective.

People Symbols

Much of how humans communicate with one another are with symbols. Words are symbols. Gestures are symbols. Body language is wrapped in symbols. Actions as well. Many of these symbols are encoded. Few of them are ever described to anyone else. The symbolic meanings behind such things are simply assumed to be shared by everyone. Unfortunately, they rarely are.

I might use neglecting-the-dishes or wearing-no-hat as coded behavior for disrespect. You might see it as too insignificant to symbolically represent anything. Or you might simply see that it means I'm a busy person. This is why so many misunderstandings happen so often. We use an encoded language of behavior, tone, and body language where everything is wrapped in meaning and where little checking is ever done to see if the message you've sent and the one I've received is one and the same.

One interesting cause for conflict is when these misunderstandings happen. Culture clashes, gendered expectations, and romantic misunderstandings are all the most obvious conflicts that can come from this. However, such conflicts can also be more subtle and long-lasting. Such as when two romantically interested individuals consistently misinterpret or ignore the other person's flirtations. Passive aggressive acts and things that are never actually said but assumed on the part of one or more people can also lend a heavier weight to your character interactions.