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!