This past weekend I gave a presentation at InConJunction in Indianapolis, and one of the attendees requested that I make it available online later on. So let’s give it a go!
First of all:
What is a Conlang?
Conlang is short for “Constructed Language”, meaning any kind of artificially and intentionally created language. You’re probably familiar with them, considering that fiction is absolutely rife with them.
It’s such a simple word, but those two letters carry a lot of power.
It’s almost inherently rooted in conflict and contradiction, a refusal to go along with the flow, whatever that flow may be. It’s a line in the sand, and that line can be as shallow as ‘do you want a taco?’, or it can be integral to preserving your autonomy and sanity. And it can speak volumes about what you hold dear.
That same word can completely change its meaning depending on where it’s coming from. From a person with little power in a given relationship, it becomes self-possession and a hold on autonomy. (No, I won’t let you treat me this way.) From an entity with power, it can become a force of oppression (No, you can’t get an education.)
But let’s take a step past that analysis. How do your characters handle hearing that word? How do the people you know? How do you?
Do they accept it?
Do they try going around the obstacle? (How many kids hear ‘no’ from one adult and immediately ask another one?)
Do they respond with an outburst of violence?
Do they make their rejection of that ‘no’ the premise of a presidential campaign?
Most people’s reaction to a ‘no’ will depend on the situation it’s presented in, but which situations matter can speak volumes about what they value. What is it that makes the difference?
If they perceive that they’re being denied injustly?
If they think they’re owed something they can’t have?
If they’re being denied by a person who is an authority over them? Or somebody who they perceive to have authority over?
If there’s a particular set of rules they won’t break, like halaal, halakha, or the sanctity of a person’s bodily autonomy?
In Urban Dragon, Arkay is an authority unto herself, and any insistence that she can’t or shouldn’t do something is met as a challenge. Nothing is worth compromising her pride, not even at the risk of injury or death– unless she’s doing it for her best friend Rosario.
How do your characters deal with being denied? How do the people in your life? And what do you think that says about the things that matter most to them? Share it in the comments!
I’ve heard a lot of people say gender doesn’t matter– that we are all equal in soul and under the skin– and I’m not arguing that, with or against. But it’s undeniable that society changes our expectations of how men and women look, think and behave, and how they should be portrayed– at least on some level. The Hawkeye Initiative plays with this concept a lot, pointing out that what we consider acceptable poses for female comic book characters are just plain ridiculous when you make a male character try to pull them off.
Even in my own writing, gender plays a big role in how my characters behave. My first finished manuscript began as an idea for a character, but without a sex to go with it. After consulting with my little sister, I decided the name was more feminine than masculine, and the rest of the story fell into place. I can guarantee that it wouldn’t be the same story if Chicago was a teenage boy being stalked by his childhood maybe-girlfriend. In another manuscript, I’ve got a very powerful and confident woman… who, when genderflipped, stops seeming powerful and starts looking like a sexual predator.
I’m not saying all traditional gender-based behaviors and actions are necessarily bad, but they do open the doors for us to gain some new perspective.
If you’re having trouble writing a scene, try flipping it– all the dudes are now chicks, all the chicks are now dudes, all the MtF are now FtM, etc– and write it from that perspective. What are they saying that they weren’t saying before? What are they suddenly hiding? Pay attention to the changes in their body language, changes in vocabulary.
Once you’ve written it gender-bent, go back and turn it right-side-up (or maybe you’ll find it works better that way, and change the rest of the story to match it). If you decide to keep your initial gender roles, rewrite that scene back in the old style, but still pay attention to the body language, the vocabulary, the taboos and secrets and posturing. You’ll be amazed what you find.
Two of your characters, who are the most bitter of enemies most of the time, unwittingly sit down and have a chat. Maybe they met up on Chat Roulette (is that even a thing anymore?), maybe they’re a superhero and supervillain who ran into each other out of costume. Whatever the case, at least one of them (perhaps both) doesn’t know who the other is.
What do they talk about? How do they treat each other? Do they broach the subject of their rivalry, or do they steer clear of it?
This sort of conversation isn’t uncommon in fiction (or in real life, for that matter), but it does make you look at this antagonistic relationship in a different light.
For the December section of his “A Calendar of Tales” project, Neil Gaiman wrote a short story in which a runaway briefly meets her future self.
(The collection of short stories is posted publicly, so you don’t have to feel guilty about reading them. Seriously, I’m in love with this collection.)
So let’s turn this around: If your protagonist could go back ten, fifteen, even twenty years and briefly visit their past self, what would they say? What advice would they give? What would they implore their younger self to change?
What would your antagonist say to their younger self?
What would your characters change about their lives? What warnings would they give? Or would they say anything at all? Tell us in the comments!
You already know I’m into Bioshock Infinite, as well as Fringe and the Star Trek reboot. Apart from all being some pretty fun Sci-Fi, all three deal with different timelines and realities. (You’ll also find Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven, Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder, and Terry Pratchett’s Jingo on that list).
It’s a common enough theme in Science Fiction– you see it almost any time you deal with alternate dimensions and time travel– but here’s the refresher:
We think of reality as a system of cause and effect (though I understand The Doctor begs to differ), and so where we are now is the result of our choices in the past. If we’d made a different choice somewhere in the past, we’d be somewhere else entirely.
So where would we be if we’d made different choices? Or more specifically, where would our characters be?
This is a writing exercise I’ve been using to keep from getting getting off-track in my current story. It helps to keep me from burning out or getting off-track on the existing plotline, but it also forces me to think about the world and the characters on a different level.
Most of these I don’t write out in their entirety– not full of prose and dialogue– but rather as a synopsis. I follow the characters from one event to another and see where they go. I’m always adding to this list, but so far it includes What Ifs such as:
What if the Villain’s plot goes exactly according to plan? What does that original plan look like, every step of the way? What does the world look like when he’s finished with it? How has he changed by the time he’s finished? Is he any happier for it?
What if the Star-Crossed Lovers had never met (okay, so this one was pretty boring for me: they would keep going in the direction they had been at the start of the story. More interesting, in this case:)
What if the Star-Crossed Lovers had gotten together, but then decided to break up? What would it take to make them decide on this? How do they go back to living alone once that interdependence has been established? How much did each partner affect the choices of the other? (Playing all the way through this really flipped my expectations of the power dynamic between these two, and gave me a much more intimate look into their respective needs and personalities.)
What if the Prisoner hadn’t had to save himself? What if he’d been rescued instead? (This one had the biggest ripples– within a year of that event, the entire world is unrecognizable.)
What if the Heroine had chosen a different way of dealing with her problems?
What writing exercises do you use to explore your world? Have you tried this one– and how has it worked for you? Tell us in the comments!
The weirdest thing happened this week. I was reading a blog post, when this person named SugarOpal invited me to give the subject of the post a shot.
In case you haven’t decided to follow the delectable links, it goes like this:
An older– now mostly defunct– therapy technique involved showing the subject a series of images, and having the patient tell a story based on the images. In the words of Rhiann Wynn-Nolet: “The pictures are often morally ambiguous and some suggest strong emotional content. The client is shown an image and narrates a story to go with it. In theory, the client’s narrative will reveal unresolved issues, fears, pathology, etc.”
Ms. Wynn-Nolet had her MC describe the pictures; now I’m going to have my MC do the same– and I invite you to do the same with your characters and post a link. Let’s see if we can’t make this a meme! Continue reading “Borrowed inspiration”→