I started this line of thought yesterday on Twitter while walking the dog in the park.
We are constantly making decisions about what is important. Decisions about what is important are also being made on a subconscious level simply about perception & what we intake from the environment around us, which we are perceiving and absorbing and filtering every moment of our lives on some level. In a similar way our unexamined cultural assumptions can cause us to do a lot of filtering we aren’t necessarily aware of.
We can’t absorb everything in our environment, so we block. But as writers and readers if we aren’t alert, we do the same without knowing it.
I think this question of perception and filtering is tricky. Maybe we walk a tight rope between being overwhelmed and being blinkered.
When my spouse and I got back to the parking lot with the dog, I headed for the side of the lot where we have parked the last few times we’ve been there. This time we had parked on the other side of the lot, and my spouse had to remind me that we were parked in a different place than usual.
I reflected how, in writing and even in reading, I tend to head for the familiar side of the story. Often if I don’t stop to think about it I just replicate patterns that are the most common in our culture and media, the things that I am told over and over again are the most real and authentic as currently defined and delineated by the society in which I live or, more properly, by the constant deluge of messages cascading down upon me through media, art, received knowledge, local patterns of human interaction, environment, and the very items easily available to me.
There are some aspects of me reverting to defaults that I think are okay and even in some ways potentially necessary to mental health. Everything can’t be brand-new. Everything can’t be a climb uphill in a blizzard of new information and re-situating myself in my environment.
If we aren’t grounded in some familiar aspects, then we’re just lost.
I remember reading many years ago a science fiction novel by Cecilia Holland which I really didn’t understand at all because the author had done such a good job of making the aliens truly alien to my then-reading brain. I simply could not connect with the story. (I have no idea how I would react to the story now.)
But at the same time, I have to be careful. I have myself responded to stories or novels in which I find a character or culture to “feel” unbelievable only because it doesn’t match the stereotype that I may have based on my own narrow cultural assumptions about things as various as gender, history, language, identity, and money (and so on).
As a writer I must push back against and remain alert to places where I slide into the unexamined default. Last week’s post on Andevai’s character development is an example of how I started writing a book with the idea in my mind of a fairly stereotypical alpha male character who I later rethought and revised to turn into someone who I hope is more complex and not quite as stereotypical. (although readers’ mileage may vary)
What are your thoughts on this?
Can you think of an example in your own writing where you started with one idea and then realized that you were your own self maybe perpetuating an assumption or stereotype that you didn’t actually want to perpetuate?
Can you think of an example in something you’ve read where your expectations weren’t met, or where what would have been a standard solution was undermined or overturned in a pleasing or unexpected way?
Interesting post! Actually, one of the best examples of an answer to the last question I can think of is the ending to your Crossroads books. By the ending, I mean Anji’s development and actions. I did see this ending coming, and found it perfectly appropriate, but reading the reviews of those who didn’t enjoy the book, I found that most of them didn’t enjoy the ending because Anji was not what they expected. Presumably, they thought of him in terms of their own culture, without taking his culture into account. They viewed him purely as the romantic hero, and ignored the fact that he comes from a culture of imperialism. They looked at him in a certain way, and thus expected certain behaviour. I loved the books the whole way through, but that ending was actually what made them great to me.
And, though I did see the ending coming, it did reveal some of my blinkers to me, because although I realised what would happen, I probably would not have thought to write it that way myself. I’ve also realised that, when writing, I do tend to white wash things, and turn to western society and western culture as a default, which is something I’m beginning to change, but at the same time it is difficult to make sure I’m not only following stereotypes and assumptions, and make sure I have the depth of knowledge to portray another culture as realistically as I’m capable of doing.
In the last novel I wrote, I had the denouement planned out from the beginning as being resolved by the primary protagonist. Only when I began to block it out scene by scene did I realize that not only were the protagonists getting off the hook too easy, but I had completely failed to take into account one of the supporting characters, whom I had written as quite strong-willed. As I let the scenario play out, it became abundantly clear to me that this supporting character was going to assert her own interests — which actually required her to sacrifice herself in some sense — and there really wasn’t anything any of the others could do about it.
Maybe this is more about letting well-defined characters surprise an author from time to time, but more than any other writing experience I’ve had, this incident challenged my stereotype that a single protagonist need be the sole primary resolver of the main conflict.
Interresting you mention it. I often think about what is normal and expected (because a am a person considered “strange” by many) and I thus had two interresting realisations once while reading your book and once while working on my own ideas (I didn’t actually publish anything yet, but thats because I have a hard time satisfying my own expectations). I really hope I do not make what I write sound really stupid and of point like last time I wrote a comment to one of your posts, because I didn’t mention all what i wanted to say because in that I would have repeated bout 50 comments before (which were all right, of course).
First situation was when i discussed Cold Magic and Cold Fire with my boyfriend. We both had thoroughly read both books, but somehow in my head Andevai was a much more European looking guy with long black hair (despite the african heritage). So still while reading something quite opposite, something in me assumed that an interesting character must also meet my expectations/stereotype of a good looking man (really love long hair). But when my boyfriend told me (and I saw the really beautiful fanart you posted some time ago) I realized how wrong it was. I wasn’t disappointed, just stunned, but then I realized that I really liked the idea. Many fantasy writers i know tend to write only about people from their own culture (and most of them are white people). But you made something very different, without doing it just that you did something not the same way as other people (sorry, don’t know if i could make myself clear on that point).
Second point was, just in short, that I am working on an alien race, quite human looking (yes I confess…), but very different in psychologie and culture. But at some point I realized that they still where so much like I think our society and cultural beliefs should be. I didn’t want to create a “better” human race at all, but something entirely different and what I had felt so… Wrong. So I had to start all over again. There is still a lot of work to do, but what I have so far feels much, much better.
Yeah, you know, when I wrote Crossroads I knew some readers would really dislike the ending for that reason, and indeed some did dislike it quite a bit and even in some cases felt betrayed by the ending, which I can understand on the part of readers who were never able to pick up any of the clues to what was coming.
I recall one review of Traitors’ Gate in which the reviewer suggested that I had “changed my mind” partway through about my intentions for the story, but in fact I always knew what the end point would be for that particular plot. The whole trilogy is built around it, as you correctly surmise.
I struggle all the time with stereotypes and assumptions, with western bias, with whitewashing, all of it. As you say, the task is to keep checking assumptions and to do research.
That’s such a good example.
I find that when characters start pushing against the expectations I have for them is the point where the book has finally started to take on a life of its own, one that somehow expands beyond my conscious limitations. If that makes sense.
Do you think the “single protagonist as sole primary resolver of the main conflict” is an American trope? Because I know exactly what you mean.
Thank you. That’s very well said.
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is how in books written by many American writers so often people’s skin color is only described if they are not white, with some exceptions for describing very pale milky smooth (etc) women’s skin as a mark of exceptional beauty. So a man will walk into a room, and if not otherwise described it is assumed he is white, but if not he will then often be described as a black man or an Asian man. White men are the default (or white women). I do it too. I make the same assumptions and then have to stop myself and ask myself if I’m making an assumption where one isn’t warranted. One of the reasons I wrote Cold Magic/Fire the way I did was precisely to write a story in which the reader could never assume a white default for any given character who walked onto the page.
One of the hardest things in writing (and especially in writing science fiction and fantasy which is so often set in a place that is not this modern world) can be in finding a way out of our own cultural and societal beliefs.
How did you solve the problem of the alien race? Was there a particular thing you focused on to change, or a way of thinking or doing things you realized was your own? What a challenge!
For me I think it is the reaction I had when reading Octavian Butler’s Xenogenisis trilogy. While the idea of the alien becoming part of the human couple’s relationship was probably confronting enough for some people, for me it was the way their togetherness was forced upon them by a combination of reward(extreme sensory pleasure) and aversion(physical sickness when touching the other human partner). That really hit a nerve in my makeup and I almost couldn’t keep reading(that nerve is also why I almost ripped to shreds 1984 when I first finished reading it. “Winston loved Big Brother.” [SHUDDER])
It’s interesting, isn’t it — I hated 1984 if by “hate” I mean it made a huge impact on me and forced me to think about/confront things that really disturbed me. Animal Farm likewise, and also Brave New World (I read them all as a teen).
Not wanting to confront those things is a form of filtering. Butler is a writer who never ever ever shies from forcing the reader to confront painful truths.
And yet they are books that made a huge impression on me.
Sorry, I am very busy atm and this question proved a little bit more difficult to answer than I thought at first.
But I’ll try.
You see, I have worked on that Idea for almost 13 years now. It started when I was a child and I created a world for my own amusement, taking ideas I found in books I read. What it is now doesn’t have much to do with what it was then.
So I think what helped me the most was when I specifically started to picture how humans would perceive them. As I said, they are very human looking, with a few exceptions, so at first glance they are hardly distinguishable. Humans exist in so many variations (especially in Sci-Fi-Settings) that I think a few minor changes in the races looks won’t make any difference in that.
The first thing I realized then that without exception, they would be seen as very arrogant, for they have an entirely different view of the world and their place in it than any human could ever have.
And from that point, I started puzzling together many other things. I realize that I might not be able to finish the task as I will probably not be able to evade the human point of thinking entirely and I also realized that this project is at the moment too big a project to finish.
In my opinion (and with the human point of view) the difficulty of writing about a something rises with the power level there is because it needs a far different Imagination than things we already know. And with this race, the power level is extremely high, so I often found myself looking at the words thinking that what I just wrote was extremely boring, so not living. Writing about authentic figures with a lower amount of (from the human point) supernatural abilities proved far easier to me.
Currently I work more often on a project where it is all about staying human. As a side effect I hope that after feeling more clearly what humanness is all about, I will be better able to grasp what is not.
Yes, this makes perfect sense.
It is one reason I have mostly stayed away from writing about truly “powerful” beings, as I think that it is tremendously difficult to pull off. N.K. Jemisin does it well in her Inheritance Trilogy, but not many people can manage it.
In the long run, though, it may slowly transform into something you can work with more. Like you, I find that my longest held ideas change over the years. I can never go back to my first conception.
Also: No worries about a delay in commenting. I understand as I too go through days/weeks where I’m busy and others where I am busy but have a bit more time.