Just a misunderstanding
Posted July 2, 2010on:
I watched a great and fun movie last night, St. Trinian’s School for Girls, sort of an Addam’s Family High School type of thing. They have a nicely arrogant theme song which has been playing in my head all morning, at least the part that goes,
“We are the best
So Screw the rest
We’ll do as we damn well please…”
Naturally this made me think of how to write non-human characters. Well, not ‘naturally’, I guess. Being of an authorial bent, I have learned to listen to the voices in my head, which meant I had to figure out why my mind kept repeating the song. Sometimes my brain speaks to me plainly, but this wasn’t one of those times.
It’s not all that unusual, by the way, to get input from one source take it a step sideways. (I used to call it left-of-center thinking but some people are unable to use that phrase in a non-political way so I don’t any more.) A couple of years ago I was asked to write a short story on the theme of fire, for a short story anthology called The Heat of the Moment, to raise money for a fire-related charity. Naturally, the first thing that came into my mind was a vampire Christmas carol. I also had another idea, for a story featuring Tarkas, the hero of my Flame in the Bowl series, and the aftermath of him setting his own arm on fire to save a life, but that wasn’t developed enough in my head, so I didn’t. I eventually got it on paper, and now it’s part of my current WIP, Tales of Uncle, as one of the tales.
A lot of people will tell you that it isn’t possible to write a truly alien character. “You’re a human being,” they’ll say, “You can’t adopt the POV of a space alien/deity/animal.” And to a certain extent this is true. I’ve seen many stories, some more successful than others, where the author tried that and failed dismally. The most successful version of this was from Doc Smith’s Lensmen series, where one of the Lensmen, I forget who, tried to talk to a member of a methane-breathing species and found that most of his words didn’t translate. This was OK, though, since the lack of translation fit into the alienness of the species and made it work. I think the reason the other attempts failed was because the authors tried too hard to make the other guy’s POV accessible to the reader, to the point where the alien was portrayed as a truncated human in alien clothes.
The thing is that most people believe that they speak the same language as their family, friends, and neighbors. This is not true. They make the same sounds, but the meanings they attach to those sounds in the privacy of their own skulls is only theirs. In most cases when person A makes a string of sounds heard by person B, B can attach his meanings to those sounds and come up with a string that makes sense. Sometimes, oftentimes, B cannot. From B’s POV, A is/has become an alien, which is pretty scary and explains why most people don’t believe or want to believe what I just said. As a less scary alternative, put B into a place where he is surrounded by things beyond his experience, a foreign country, or world, or Universe, and try to describe what he sees as he is seeing it. You’ll quickly realize that if A is alien to B, so is B alien to A, and you’re B. You can write about you, can’t you?