Saturday, May 30, 2009

Anachronistic language in fantasy

Some time ago, I read a heroic fantasy story submitted for critiques where the characters said “okay” and “hi”. That shattered the suspension of disbelief. It’s difficult to imagine Conan the Barbarian greeting Red Sonja with “Hi!” or even “Hello!”

Different fantasies, different thresholds

Heroic and traditional fantasies require the most care in this regard. Some writers of historicals are careful to reproduce past styles of speech, address and narrative, which contributes to the realism of the stories, but in Matthew Woodring Stover’s Jericho Moon, the protagonists tangle with Joshua ben Nun and the Habiru tribes while telling each other to “Cheer up” and “be a sport”. The book is still an enjoyable read, but the writer’s style tends to be breezy and amusing, and the casual modern language fits in with that.

Types of anachronisms

Some anachronistic language slips under the readers’ radar. The moles in William Horwood’s Duncton Chronicles say “Hello” to each other, but “Hello” is such a common word now (one of its earliest uses was in the New York Tribune in 1843) that the context has to be really alien for it to stand out.

The characters’ educational level also makes a difference. I once read a fantasy where mercenaries used terms like “administrative” and “ratio”, and that stood out jarringly. Writers could still pull this off, though. If characters are educated to the point where they normally use such words – such as those in Kara Dalkey’s Goa, who pepper their conversation with words like “profligacy”, “efficacious” and “labyrinthine” – this will seem more normal.

Some readers, however, do look up words to check how historically accurate they are, or are aware in advance of when a word is used inappropriately. A review of a historical romance pointed out that the heroine could not sit “ramrod straight” when ramrods were developed for use with early firearms, and those hadn’t been invented yet.

Alternatives to anachronisms

In a discussion on whether or not to use such terms, another writer pointed out that it might sometimes be less intrusive to use a simple “hello” than to invent some term that would stand out, especially if such a term doesn’t fit in with the rest of the story. If characters use modern-day speech except for greeting each other with, “Fair morning and fine noon”, that’s going to call attention to itself, and probably not in a good way.

A good example of a term being adapted to fit with the timeline of a story occurs in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, where the children greet each other with “Ho” rather than “Hi”. The term struck me as a bit odd the first time I read it, but it was so small a change that it was easy to get used to, and after a while it seemed normal in the context of the story.

Languages do change and evolve, and that was more subtle than Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. After making my way through “surprizes”, “sophas” and “connexions”, I think I got a “headach”. A little of that kind of authenticity goes a long way, and for me, a story also needs to balance faithfulness to its time period with ease of readability.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Easter eggs

Many writers include Easter eggs – in-jokes or subtle references – in their work. This can be a lot of fun, both for the writers and for readers who recognize the messages or humor, though there are a few caveats.

Like symbolism, Easter eggs have to function on two levels. They have to make sense and fit into the story whether or not the reader gets the reference. As a result, they can’t be used to convey vital information, nor can they be clues that the reader needs to figure out in order for the plot to proceed. They’re entertaining and decorative instead, like flourishes in calligraphy.

A good example of this occurs in China Mieville’s The Scar, where the flagship of the New Crobuzonian fleet is named Morning Walker. That’s a reference to C. S. Lewis’s Dawn Treader, but it’s subtle. If a reader catches the parallel, it provides a little more enjoyment; if not, the name of the flagship still sounds exotic and interesting.

An Easter egg can’t be too out-of-place. A reference to the Exxon Valdez rather than to a sailing ship in another fantasy novel might have been too jarring for readers who recognized it, unless the story was aiming for anachronistic humor.

And the Easter egg cannot be pointed out to readers. I recently read part of a manuscript submitted for critique and found a foreword where the writer explained what certain terms meant. Those terms were well-chosen, but deconstructing them spoiled the effect.

Not only are few readers going to plow through a foreword if they’re not already interested in the story, calling attention to one’s own imagination never works. If the readers don’t get it, the readers don’t get it. Better to allow them to enjoy the story, even if they do so on a less profound level than the writer views it, than to make them feel that the writer is reaching into the story to help them grasp nuances of hidden meaning.

The last Easter egg I used was in a land where morality and purity were highly prized… on the surface, at least. So the land had seven major roadways, which were given the Latin names for the seven deadly sins – Via Avaritia, Via Invidia and so on. If any readers are intrigued, they’ll look the names up; if they aren’t, they can still enjoy the story. Unlike real eggs, Easter eggs in stories will always be there, whether they’re found or not.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Jewelry in fantasy

I love browsing books on jewelry – its history, purposes and styles in various cultures. Those are easy to adapt to uses in fantasy as well.

Purposes of jewelry

As well as being a sign of wealth and status, jewels and jewelry are frequently used as objects of power or control (or both). From Tolkien’s rings to Julian May’s torcs to Michael Moorcock’s Jewel in the Skull to Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels, such objects are beautiful as well as providing a way to produce or channel magical energy. And in the case of the Ring, that attractiveness is a good way to lure the unwary into becoming the object’s next host.

Jewelry can also have practical uses that are combined with decoration – for instance, bracers or a garde-nez. Maybe the protection is symbolic, such as jeweled masks that girls wear when they enter puberty. Or on worlds overrun by vampires or werewolves, perhaps people wear silver nails through their hands, which not only invoke the Crucifixion but is supposed to make their blood taste bad.

Mythology and superstition can be very helpful here. For instance, amethysts were supposed to be change color if there was poison in a drink. I wouldn’t mind seeing a world where all jewels (or semi-precious stones) really did have such powers.

Placement of jewelry

Jewelry can be worn on or in a lot of body parts. Ears, fingers, wrists, arms, toes, ankles, neck, waist… and that’s just on this world. Others might be even more creative. For instance, jewels or metallic shapes can be embedded into the skin.

I once read a novel about a diamond that had the power to heal all diseases and reverse the effects of old age. One character, on obtaining the stone, had it surgically implanted into her lower abdomen so that she could constantly draw on its power and no one else would be able to use it (unfortunately, someone attacked her and took it. You can imagine how).

Types of jewelry

A woman came by selling human eyes set into rings.
“How lovely,” said Smara.
“They won’t last,” said the woman.
The Book of the Mad, Tanith Lee

I love seeing unusual objects used as jewelry, and while human eyes in rings might only be seen in the lunatic city of Paradise, spiders in amber or seashells would be easier to incorporate into a more normal place. Or what about transient jewelry, such as ice crystals carved into elaborate shapes, or tiaras made from solid blocks of scent that disappear after a while but leave the hair smelling good?

Living jewelry would be even more fascinating, such as flowers sprouting from earlobes or a monarch butterfly spreading its gorgeous wingspan across the base of a throat. Or small serpents coiled around wrists, for an effect that is at once strange, beautiful and potentially deadly.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Unusual styles

I recently read a book which didn’t use quotation marks to indicate characters’ speech, and that started me thinking about two of the quirky or original styles I’ve seen in fiction.

Stephen King’s was the first that came to mind, partly because I enjoyed his way of putting italicized words and phrases into his stories, both to give those words added emphasis and to break up the paragraphs of the narrative. It produced a sense of
(reading between the lines)
an undercurrent, of being aware of something on more than a conscious level. It heightened the suspense and tension brilliantly.

A similar technique was used in the start of a story I once read. I’ve forgotten the title and the author’s name, but the story had small, tantalizing glimpses of future action in italics. So it would have gone something like this.

Three days’ vacation was all Julie could afford, so she had only a single suitcase. She unpacked it quickly, taking out clothes, sunblock… and the knives, not sharpened, it lasts longer that way… and her new camera.

The book which didn’t use quotation marks was an ARC of Norman Ollestad’s Crazy for the Storm, though I remember this quirk from Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain as well. I think this technique is used to produce an uncluttered impression of the story, a sense of smoothness and quiet as spoken speech flows at the same level as the rest of the text, rather than being set apart in any way.

Unfortunately, I had to work a little harder to distinguish when characters were speaking. Although this might well have been the effect the authors were hoping for (Quentin Tarantino has said that the events in his films aren’t in chronological order because he likes the audience figuratively chasing the film), it also meant I’m not likely to read such books for enjoyment or relaxation.

And while this may be just me, sometimes the technique worked too well. The words drifted up from somewhere within the narrative itself, rather than emanating from the mouths of the characters. That was a little too literary.

I’d rather styles not be excessively quirky; if I want to read something without capital letters or with only one word per line, there’s always e. e. cummings. But distinctive styles in fiction are often memorable – both in good and bad ways.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Questions about telepathy

Telepathy has fascinated me ever since I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation and wished they would do more with Counselor Troi’s ability (as opposed to her appearance). Thinking about that topic brought up a lot of questions…

1. Why do telepaths speak at all? If telepathy is something common to every member of a species, might their vocal cords eventually atrophy? Or do they only use telepathy for private communication and audible speech otherwise?

What’s the telepathy etiquette, in other words?

2. What methods do telepaths have for including other people in a silent conversation? For instance, in Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels novels, men can communicate with other men on private “spear threads”, while women use “distaff threads”.

Do telepaths who aren’t originally participating in that conversation know of it or hear it anyway? Can they “listen in” if the originators of the conversation don’t intend to include them?

3. Does telepathy only refer to actual, direct speech? Or does it also include the ability to pick up thoughts or images from another person’s mind, whether that person wants to share them or not?

4. If the subjects of such scans were also telepaths, would they know about the scans? How would they react?

5. In a society of telepaths, how would a request for mental privacy be treated?

6. How do people become telepaths? Nature or nurture? If it’s genetic, are there any downsides to it? If it’s learned, what kind of people undertake such a course of study, and what do they do with their training?

7. Does anything block or interfere with telepathy? In Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, a character tries to get away with murder in a society where telepathy is extremely common. To shield his thoughts, he silently repeats a jingle from a song, ”Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun”.

If another telepath wishes to contact another, does the recipient have the option of not answering at all, similar to not picking up the phone? Can the recipient's mental status be set at "unavailable" during times when concentration is needed elsewhere - such as during a battle?

8. Can telepaths talk silently to children? What, if anything, prevents them from using their ability to influence or otherwise harm impressionable or defenceless minds?

9. What’s the range of telepathy, distance-wise?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Five uses for dinosaurs in fantasy

Since I’ve already done butterflies

1. As mounts

Many dinosaurs would make very good steeds. Some species of raptor, for instance, are large enough to carry a human as well as being fast. Selective breeding and domestication could take care of their more dangerous weapons and weed out predator traits, or you could come up with an entirely new species that keeps the general form but eats vegetation.

Then there are pterosaurs for air travel and plesiosaurs for sea voyages. And maybe once the first-class seats on the T. rex’s back are full, people have to travel economy class in its mouth.

2. As architectural inspirations

In China Mieville’s New Crobuzon, a settlement called Bonetown is built within the skeleton of some unidentified giant creature. The same thing could be done with the skeleton of a dinosaur, although I’d take steps to differentiate it from Mieville’s.

For instance, the bones themselves could be modified or reinforced, turning the spinal column into a pseudo-subway tunnel or the horns of a Triceratops into towers. Or a saillike structure similar to a Dimetrodon’s could be used to regulate temperatures (the large surface areas of those absorbed heat). To take it one step further, perhaps they could absorb magical energy as well.

3. As time-travel devices

When I was little younger, I used to imagine that the dinosaur skeletons in museums came to life at night, when no one was around, and enjoyed themselves. It just seemed unfair that these magnificent creatures were no longer alive.

But maybe they could be, in the past. Maybe that’s the only way dinosaurs can live again, by going back millions of years (and taking you with them, if you happen to be close enough). It doesn’t last long, because they return to the present, to bones and dust by dawn.

But while it lasts, the dinosaurs walk the earth once more.

4. As were-creatures

I wouldn’t mind being a were-velociraptor or a were-deinonychus – basically anything small, fast, maneuverable and sharp-toothed. Maybe there’s a lot of conflict between the packs of mammalian were-creatures and reptilian ones, sort of an evolutionary version of the Jets and the Sharks.

5. As an intelligent species

I bought Eric Garcia’s Anonymous Rex because it dealt with intelligent dinosaurs living secretly and successfully among modern-day humans, and I had to see how the story pulled that off. Unfortunately the dinosaurs were too well-integrated; there wasn’t much to distinguish them from humans, such as a very different culture.

On the other hand, Harry Harrison’s West of Eden features the Yilane, the equally intelligent descendants of dinosaurs, doing their best to wipe out Cro-Magnon humans. The level of thought that’s gone into the Yilane biology and culture is staggering – as just one example, nearly all the Yilane tools and instruments are organic. They’re living creatures that have been genetically modified to, for instance, produce heat (so they’re used as blankets).

The only thing I don’t like about these books is that the humans win, and the only good Yilane is a Yilane who recognizes the humans’ equality/superiority. We already have one world where the dinosaurs no longer rule; why do we need another?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Racism in fantasy

Racism was not a problem on the Discworld, because – what with trolls and dwarfs and so on – speciesism was more interesting. Black and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green.
Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad

I knew this topic would be fun to write about as soon as I read the Pratchett quote.

1. “There can be good reasons for different races not to like each other.”

That’s another quote, this time from Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies. We’re come some distance from the all-good or all-evil races of traditional fantasy, but there’s no need to go in the opposite direction and make all racism the product of a misunderstanding or lack of information.

Besides, it’s fun when people – or races – have serious problems or flaws. Don’t scrub those clean just so there can be harmony between the races. Insurmountable differences are realistic. It doesn’t have to be as major as “Kyrdobans sacrifice the babies of other races and so the Lujesci hate them”. Maybe the Kyrdobans sacrifice the sickly or deformed babies of their own race, justifying this because they don’t have the resources to feed those who can’t contribute, but the Lujesci are horrified by it anyway.

2. Tolerance shouldn’t be limited to the good guys.

Be careful about making only the protagonists open-minded and tolerant. That’s not to say this can’t work, but it has to be handled carefully; the protagonist has to have a good reason to behave that way. In Chocolat, for instance, Vianne’s acceptance of the river people works because she herself is an outsider, so she understands what that’s like.

3. Tolerance shouldn’t automatically be a good thing with positive results.

Extending an olive branch usually doesn’t work if whoever you’re extending it to wants the entire tree, and the land it grows on as well. And even if the protagonist is the close friend or lover of someone of a different race, this shouldn’t mean the end of all their problems and differences. In fact, this can lead to more – they can be discriminated against for miscegenation, for instance.

It stands out glaringly when a protagonist applies modern thinking to medieval times (or prehistoric times, e.g. Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children novels) and convinces everyone to follow his or her more enlightened views. It’s much more realistic, and sympathetic, when the protagonist faces stiff but reasonable opposition.

4. Handle eternal conflicts carefully.

Extremely traditional fantasies might get away with eternal conflicts. All the characters take it for granted that elves always hate orcs and have done so from the dawn of time, and vice versa. No explanation is given and apparently no one wants any end to the struggle other than the extinction of one race or the other.

In most stories, though, and as part of good worldbuilding, there should be a reason for this eternal conflict, and it shouldn’t be ended too easily – or happily. Racism can’t be stamped out by a Romeo and Juliet romance, or negated by the author bending over backwards to show that different races are just like us.

5. Racism comes in degrees.

If there’s a dominant race, consider giving it different reactions to different races. Perhaps they really hate the river-dwelling fishfolk but are just disdainful towards the amphibians, partly because the amphibians are capable of breathing air and speaking.

Look for the small touches and petty cruelties when it comes to racism, not just the grand sweeping generalizations or pogroms.

6. Don’t copy real life too closely.

There’s an R. A. Salvatore novel where the conflict between the elves and the orcs is depicted in a very stark “KKK vs. African-Americans” way. I believe there’s even a scene where a gang of disguised elven fanatics attacks a peaceful group of orcs, though I can’t be certain because I read the reviews on Amazon some time ago. It wasn’t a book I wanted to buy.

The moment a story becomes too obviously a mirror of real life, the suspension of disbelief goes.

To me, racism in fantasy is a rich vein of material waiting to be mined. I love coming up with different races and watching them interact – and clash – with each other.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Are you a writer?

1. Spies bug your house and hear the tapatapatapatap of a keyboard. What could all this activity be?

a. Work, e.g. writing up expense reports.
b. Social interaction, e.g. emails.
c. The creation of new worlds and new people and the unfolding of all their stories.

2. The movie started out with a good idea that fell flat for want of characters, plot, etc. You walk out thinking,

a. What a waste of money! I wonder if there’s any way I could get a refund.
b. What a waste of time! Before I watch another film I’ll read all the reviews.
c. What a waste of potential! If the heroine was a member of the secret organization before her accident – no, better yet, if she founded the organization – she’d be so much more proactive. And it should be a near-fatal accident. And set on Mars! Wow, this could make a great story...

3. As your first-ever manuscript garners rejection after rejection, you start to feel tired and dispirited. How do you recuperate?

a. By buying yourself something nice.
b. By taking a day off to do something relaxing, like going to a spa or a museum.
c. By starting another story, one where the plucky protagonist faced even worse obstacles and triumphed. This one’s going to be even better, you just know it!

4. What does the word vanity make you think of?

a. Ecclesiastes 1:2.
b. A dressing-table.
c. PublishAmerica.

5. What external motivation does a writer need to come up with a good manuscript?

a. A hefty advance check.
b. Booze, and lots thereof.
c. Nothing. Drop a writer on a desert island and he’ll scratch stories onto coconut leaves. Probably send out query letters in corked bottles too.

Was your score mostly c’s? Then close this window and get back to your writing. Leaving a comment first is fine, though. :)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

It Happened In Italy

I’ve wanted to learn more about the Holocaust ever since I read Leon Uris’s Exodus, so I requested Elizabeth Bettina’s It Happened in Italy to review. This book documents the stories of many Italians who sheltered Jews from the Nazis, and balances the past with the present by including the testimony of several of those Jews, some of whom survived internment camps in Italy.

My first impression is of a very feel-good book that focuses on people’s positive experiences. The author stresses, over and over again, that the Jews were happy and safe in the low-security camps set up in this particular part of Italy, where they basically played soccer, socialized and attended synagogue.

I’m not quite sure what to make of that. Bettina backs this up with many photographs to show people enjoying themselves, but it seems too good to be true. This is the theme of the book: that even in an Axis-friendly country, some people did all they could not just to save lives but to give their fellow human beings a better quality of life. It’s still difficult to believe, though, since what’s depicted here is a concerted effort involving everyone in the village of Campagna and thousands of others besides, and It Happened in Italy provides two unconvincing reasons as to why.

All the survivors we interviewed said the same thing: it was in the Italian character to help.

…the most educated group of people in the world created the Holocaust and the “Final Solution”. Yet it many cases, it was the simple people, the “uneducated” people who saved the Jews. Simple goodness triumphed over sophisticated evil.

I looked Hitler, Himmler and Goring up on the Internet but did not find any evidence that they made up “the most educated group of people in the world”. By the way, Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. Amazing how all his readin’ and writin’ didn’t corrupt him to the point where he persecuted Jews in England.

In other words, there’s no insight into why this story happened as it did, why no one in the Italian village seems to have even tried to sell out the Jews (such as what happened to the Czech paratroopers who carried out Operation Anthropoid). This book is too focused on telling the stories to do anything more than simply tell them.

Which may be enough for other readers. As well as the photographs, Bettina includes copies of documents and maps, giving the book a very visual feel as she traces interweaving paths back to the past. But for me it was repetitive, especially the scenes where a survivor tells Bettina his story, then repeats the story to a Vatican official, then tells it once more to the Italians when they’re reunited. I’m glad that so many people survived the Holocaust and have good memories of Italy, but I didn’t enjoy reading this book.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

When writers get facts wrong

I should start out by explaining that this particular post was, first and foremost, inspired by a Chick tract. Of course, very few people take those seriously or expect the stories in them to occur on the same planet we inhabit. But the tract reminded me of a query letter I once critiqued, which showed that it’s pretty easy to get details wrong when you take them for granted or don’t know a lot about a specialized field.

In the tract, a girl goes to a doctor to be tested for STDs, is told she is HIV positive and is then convinced that she will die “real soon”. What happened to retesting to make sure the result wasn’t a false positive? For that matter, what happened to taking drugs like Zidovudine which slow down the progress of the disease? HIV doesn’t kill “real soon”, which is one reason it spreads successfully. It gives its hosts plenty of time to infect others.

The problems with the query letter I critiqued were more subtle, but they would have stood out to anyone who’s worked for a medical laboratory network. Suffice to say that these days, there are a lot of security precautions – computerized and otherwise – when it comes to altering patients’ requisitions or reports. You can’t just doctor (pun intended) these without an e-paper trail being generated.

Information is so specialized these days that any writers can make such errors when in a field with which they’re not familiar. So, what’s the solution?

Do the research

What libraries don’t have, the Internet probably does. Cross-check facts and don’t rely on just one source for controversial or little-known information.

Ask people who might know

Most people like being asked for their experiences, opinions or advice. On the other hand, people with specialized knowledge are sometimes difficult to meet in real life or might be busy. It wouldn’t look good for me if I was taken away from my daily work by someone who wanted to know about how microbiology tests were done.

On the other hand, I love talking about this topic when I do have time, and if this happens online, I can formulate my answers and respond in more detail. There are dozens of discussion boards which have forums where people can ask questions, and in many of those, specialists in the field reply. If I need an answer quickly, though, I pop into a chatroom where people know me.

The more authentic a story appears, the more believable it is. And if details in the story are faked, don’t ever doubt that someone, somewhere, will spot the lack of authenticity. We live in such a global, hyper-connected age that if you say the “roundabout ahead” road signs in Satwa have white arrows on a red background, someone will point out that the background is actually blue.

At least, it was the last time I saw one, four years ago. I’d better look it up…

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Unbreakable Child

I’ve read a few memoirs dealing with child abuse (A Child Called It, Ten Thousand Sorrows), and while these made me feel sorry for the children in those stories, they never got beyond that. The abuse in them was too difficult to imagine. The accounts were so bleak that I either detached emotionally or found them not fully convincing or both.

With that in mind, I read Kim Richardson’s The Unbreakable Child because it described the years she spent in a Catholic orphanage. I’d attended a fairly strict Catholic school, so I thought that would give me a way to connect with Kim’s story.

I was wrong for two reasons. The first is that other than being run by nuns, there wasn’t much the two facilities had in common. The second is that Kim’s poignant, realistic memoir formed that emotional connection all by itself. The ill-treatment she went through is brutal but believable; I wanted to curl my fingers inward to hide my nails as I read this book. And the single-sentence description of sexual abuse – touching with the hands rather than the heart – is unforgettable.

Kim and her three older sisters were placed in the care of the State, which handed them over to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. She was only three at the time, yet had to conform to rigid standards of conduct and endure incredible cruelty. Yet this isn’t an unrelieved, one-note account of abuse. There are bright moments, like Kim’s eighth birthday present, a bracelet from one of the few adults who treated her kindly. Resourcefully, she hid that from the nuns, who confiscated any personal possessions.

Most of all, though, her story of the past is interwoven with her life in the present, where she and other survivors of the orphanage brought what had been hidden into the light. Represented by attorney William McMurray, they successfully sued the Sisters of Charity. But Kim’s greatest victory was to find happiness with a family of her own, to keep her love of life, and to be unbreakable in every sense of the word.

I’m grateful that she wrote this book, and that I read it.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Playing fair with readers

Playing unfair can take different forms, but these are all likely to be unsatisfying for the readers.

When the character has esoteric knowledge

My favorite mystery novels and stories are those where both the reader and the detective have access to the same information, but the detective draws the right conclusions from it. For instance, take Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Silver Blaze”, which features the famous statement about “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”. Holmes simply realizes that when watchdogs don’t bark at visitors, it’s probably because they’re familiar with those visitors.

In contrast, there’s an Agatha Christie novel – The Murder at the Vicarage, IIRC – where the antagonist fakes the timing of the murder by using picric acid, which is explosive and sounds like a gunshot when it’s detonated. I admire Christie’s use of chemistry and toxicology in her books, but this came completely out of the blue. There were no clues that the reader could have used to at least try to figure this out (a good example of such a clue occurs in the novel Sad Cypress).

When the character has intuition

Gavin de Becker’s non-fiction The Gift of Fear focuses on intuition and how people can listen to this subconscious warning. What’s interesting, though, is that in all the examples he provides, there’s a reason behind the intuition, although this reason may not be immediately obvious at first.

For instance, if you’re made nervous by someone who crowds you in a subway, it could be because they’re in your personal space although there’s plenty of room, or it might be because they’re dressed far too warmly for the weather. That kind of intuition is fine. The kind I dislike, in stories, is when the character just happens to know something that the reader doesn’t – and no reason is given for this.

Very often this special knowledge is introduced through the word “somehow” (as in “Somehow she knew she could trust him”) so that word has become a red flag for me. There has to be some reason for this – evidence, experience, logic, reasoning, telepathy, what have you.

When the character has read the script

This can be a little more difficult to spot, but it’s an even greater problem. It’s when the character never even considers an idea or a course of action, despite this being what most reasonable people would do under those circumstances.

This isn’t the same as rejecting such an option because the character has access to secret knowledge that the reader doesn’t. It’s when the character seems to have read the book beforehand and knows that they won’t gain anything by that course of action.

I like it when a protagonist doesn’t choose the logical, reasonable course of action for good reasons – for instance, not calling the police about a stalker because there’s some evidence that said stalker is actually one of the cops. And it can be even more enjoyable (though painful too) when the protagonist faces the negative consequences of their actions or is even shown to have made the wrong choice entirely.

But when the character has this kind of author-like awareness, they’re always right. And that’s not playing fair with the reader either. It’s one thing for a character to be very intelligent – readers can usually imagine that – but to give the character omniscience is going too far.

This one can be tough if you’re the writer, because you have to separate your own awareness from that of the characters. You have to be solidly in their minds, so that even if you-the-writer know something terrible will happen to them if they make a certain choice, the characters genuinely believe they’re doing the best thing and they walk into the trap. George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords has a great example of this.

And that’s playing fair. It’s playing hard and merciless and maybe hurting everyone, but it’s playing fair.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The skies of fantasy worlds

One of the quickest ways to signal to a reader that we’re not in Kansas any more is to show how the other world’s sky differs from that of Earth. This can be very effective when done well. There are almost too many examples of this to describe, and it occurs in every type of speculative fiction.

The sun

The sun of Darkover, in the series by Marion Zimmer Bradley, is red (one of the titles is The Bloody Sun). This is a relatively normal color for a sun, though - astronomically speaking. Writers could probably get away with these kinds of variations in the sun’s color, but anything wildly out of the ordinary might take some explanation or seem contrived. I know I’d buy a white or blue-ish sun, but not a purple or black one.

Increasing the number of suns is also an option, though then I’d expect the world to show the effects of having a binary or trinary solar system (and then we might be getting more into SF than fantasy).

The moon

The number (and colors) of moons can vary; for instance, the world of DragonLance has three moons – one red, one white and one black. Jack Vance’s Tschai has two moons, one pink and one blue, and there are probably fantasy worlds out there with no moons at all. Although now I’m curious about how many moons a world can have before the suspension of disbelief is strained.

The shape of the moon can also be changed. When the characters in Brian Lumley’s The House of Doors find themselves trapped in the titular house, one of the first things they notice when they look up is an octagonal moon. On the other hand, the House of Doors functions like a holodeck, so its producing this kind of shape is quite conceivable, since the moon is just a projection. In real life (or real SF), heavenly bodies aren't likely to be so unusually shaped. Still, that was a vivid detail.

And finally, in China Mieville’s world of Bas-Lag, the moon has its own satellites. That was a neat touch.

The stars

Most fantasy worlds have their own constellations, though in DragonLance these were the representations of gods, and IIRC they disappeared from the sky when the gods descended to earth. I’d like to see a world where the constellations could change unpredictably, so that lost travelers couldn’t count on being able to tell their way with the North Star.

In Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels, the Red Star is distinct from the rest of the stellar bodies. That could be done with other stars as well, for other reasons – a star appeared to mark a significant event in the Bible, for instance. Maybe different cities have different stars hanging low over them to indicate their positions to traders.

Everything else

Comets and aurorae borealis, asteroid belts close enough to see, rings around the planet. Almost any phenomenon can be adapted to enhance a world, although some seem vivid enough in and of themselves, such as glory or moon dogs. I’m loving these names. I didn’t know astronomers were so creative. :)

Have fun painting the skies of your world.