Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On being different – Part I: What a distinction difference makes

As a writer, I find myself often asking myself about human nature. It’s the driving force behind every character driven story, and even the plot driven ones, not just because I’m writing about people in motion, but because I’m developing characters that readers need to sympathize with. People sympathize with the similar, but go too similar and the sense of self repels. This seems to be the stake in all relationships between people.

I am different. I grew up “different.” But not different in the fashion that a made-for-TV Disney movie might attempt to portray. I am not Dumbo with my giant ears helping me fly; I am not the kid who had bazillions of navigational data points poured into my brain by an ET; I am just myself, same as millions of others, no strange maverick when placed against the billions of humanity. Yet in my smaller community I am the black swan.

The concept of growing up different or being different is so broad that I am going to have to break it up into parts.

Being different is not about finding a distinction from the mainstream—it’s about being different from your local community. Why? Because anyone sufficiently different from everyone else simply stops being a social human and in those terms anyone can argue that nobody is different: everybody is the same. We all have the same underlying mechanisms driving our motives and needs, but this seems to be a hollow entreaty, especially when it’s an individual arguing this. We are all different and we’re all similar. It is only due to the basic similarities that tie us together that we can even give context to our differences.

As writers we draw upon our experiences to weave believable narratives from nothing. First we must produce a foundation from what makes everyone similar—those social motives and mores I just spoke about—then we have to tweak them slightly to move away from them. The character in question also cannot be so alien from the readers that they cannot relate. This is the problem of aliens.

The problem of aliens could be distilled into a single idea: that readers want to sympathize with characters coping with situations that they themselves can put themselves in. The crux of a great deal of Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction is about things that haven’t happened to anyone, and some of them want to prevent a world quite alien from our own, either alternate in reality or deeply futuristic. Aliens in these stories often become prominent; but they’re not that alien, especially if they’re the character telling the story. Narrator aliens happen to be very human (similar enough) where as non-narrators can be wildly alien; but instead they get lensed through an anthropomorphic camera.

Good example of this is M.C.A. Hogarth’s Spots the Space Marine. The aliens in this context are a type of sentient praying mantis. They’re definitely alien, but they use English to communicate, they’re capable of distinct social reasoning, and their behavior is portrayed to us through human characters. By forcing aliens in SciFi stories to interact with humans close enough to the reader it allows them to sympathize with the aliens through the narrator. This can also be true for actual humans who would otherwise alienate the reader by being crazy—there is nothing more alienating than complete breaks from social reality like schizophrenia.

Another case of careful difference in characters happens to be when portraying deep afflicting traumas. How a person reacts to PTSD, to a rape, assault, having a friend commit suicide—all horrible and sad traumas that must be coped with, but most people don’t experience most of these things directly, even many of our readers. Those that do, of course, have a context that they can draw from but it will different fundamentally from that of the writer (and probably every other reader.) So the writer first builds a world familiar to everyone. The mundane similarities that tie us all together: the desire for company, the need for comfort, the things that go bump in our heads when we feel insecure… And then they introduce the exotic portions of the trauma to show how all the above have been changed or struck by that trauma. And finally how the character copes.

We all cope with stresses day to day. Small ones. Big ones. They differ greatly in type and amplitude; but when writing fiction they all take on the same sort of axis, one that either leads towards resolution or one that doesn’t. People read stories to escape their mundane stresses, so they add our exotic stresses instead. We reflect their coping mechanisms, their defenses, even sometimes their hopes and fears in our literary brush strokes.

My differences make my writing distinctive.

You should let them do the same for yours.

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