Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Perspective Matters

A fictitious character walks up to you and says, “The other day I saw two birds in flight, one below the other.  The further from me they flew, the closer together they came, until at last, in the distance, they merged into a single bird.”

How would you respond? My first thought is “You’re farsighted.  You should get glasses.”  But I’m not you and that is very important. 

How would people from other times and places have responded?  Perhaps “You are seeing double.  You should drink less ale.”  Or, “Your vision is  a terrible omen.  You should be burned at the stake.”  Or, “You have seen the bird’s spirit flying beside it.  You should study under the tribal shaman.”

The point that I am so subtly bludgeoning here is that everyone’s answer is based on their knowledge, their culture, their perspective.  This is particularly important for fictitious people, who carry the burden of illustrating their world to their readers.

The culture and perspective of the characters impacts not only how they see the world, but the choices they make and the words they use.  And it is not just something that authors need to consider in terms of character.  It can inform even the word choices and language of the work.

I am told that the use of the word “focus” to mean concentration – focusing on a problem, focusing one’s energies – is derived from the science of optics and is therefore a fairly modern term.  So a Stone Age sorcerer would not focus his magics.

Now, you may be saying, that’s a bit nit-picky.  And you are right, it is.  There is a counter argument that states to be read and understood, the work needs to be in the language of the modern reader.  After all, to be truly authentic, any piece set far enough in the past should be linguistically incomprehensible to all but the most dedicated scholars.  And honestly, you want to sell to a wider readership than that.

But the counter argument should not be used as an excuse to avoid any research or effort in fully depicting the perspective (and the world) of the character.  It’s more of a balancing act.  Accessible language and the portrayal of a foreign or fantastical perspective are not mutually exclusive.  It comes down to making writing choices – will this word choice support my story without confusing my reader?

Hey, I’m sorry, but no one ever said writing was going to be easy.  But oddly enough, it can sometimes be a whole lot of fun.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Secret Genre Identities

I written before about how genres are built up of conventions and expectations.  But times change and sometimes genres have to adapt to keep up.

The obvious example would be the old cowboy movies that inspired a generation of children to play Cowboys and Indians.  Westerns today acknowledge the cultural complexity and diversity of Native Americans.  Besides, they were here first.

And the role of women, in just about any genre, has changed a good deal since the 1950’s.  And the spy genre is still adapting to the end of the cold war.

But it isn’t always the sledge hammer of political correctness.  Sometimes the changes are a little more subtle.  Sometimes the tropes just get tweaked a little, here and there.  In the current super-hero space, for example, the secret identity has been devalued.  It’s still there – it’s too central to the concept to toss aside, but it’s not the same. 

You rarely see a story these days that centers around a hero’s close friend almost stumbling on the big secret.  Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne no longer pretend to be bumbling idiots just to contrast their super lives.  And where it used to be only one or maybe two at most knew a hero’s identity, now the secret is commonly shared.  Heroes call each other by their personal names.  Clark married Lois.  Heck, even Aunt May knows who Spider-Man is.

There are a number of reasons for the change – we’re not really a culture that values humility and anonymity.  No one gets a promotion by being just another office drone.  And we live in an information age where personal privacy has become something that needs actively defending.  I think the heroes have adapted fairly well, considering such a central genre trope is no longer a good fit for the times and customs.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Deploy the Backburners

Sometimes we have ideas that we just can’t stop to think about right now.  So we set them aside, to some dark corner of our minds, where they continue to grow.  I believe the idiom is “putting it on the back burner.” 

I have a fairly large back burner.  But this may not be unusual – for all I know, every one does.  As a writer, it is useful to look back there occasionally and see what’s cooking.

I’ve had a rant in my head for years asking why anyone would want to grow up in a nation that appears to value youth over age.  And another about how a global communications network will not create a world of peace and understanding and may, in fact, have the opposite impact.

One day, years ago, I’m writing this play and have a scene where I need conversation for an awkward dinner date between a man who needs to grow up a little and a woman who is a bit of a techie.  Out come the rants and the scene practically writes itself.  And the characters have something interesting and thoughtful to say.

After all, it’s stuff I thought about for years.

Of course, it doesn’t always work out that well.  Here’s a counter example:  I’ve had this idea for a play in which the characters trap a vampire in the basement, not realizing just how cruel and dangerous a creature they’ve cornered.  And I had this great speech, in which the vampire justifies her existence by claiming to be a living historical memory.  Great speech, with mythological references, poetic meter, and layers of metaphor.

When I finally get around to writing the play, however, the speech doesn’t fit.  It sounds too different from everything else in the play.  It sticks out, it spoils the rhythm, it looks like the author’s favorite pet doing an unnecessary cameo appearance.

So I had to cut it.  Had the damn thing for years, and it ends up on the cutting room floor.  So it goes.

It’s commonly held that works of art are expressions of the artist’s ideas and creativity.  But sometimes, for the end result to be a quality product, we don’t get to say everything we want to.