Thanks to Dan for inviting me to post on his blog – and being patient with my scatterbrained state of late. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to talk about, but I finally lit upon a subject I think we both share an interest in … and you’ll find some elements of it in Spire City (and to a certain extent, in my Flow – first and only plug on my behalf, I promise).
In a lot of secondary world fantasy, while the characters deal with kings and dragons, enchantments and a convenient lack of poor sanitation, their mindsets and outlooks on the world are more or less similar to ours - recognizably modern, if not in every detail. Many of these characters could be transported to other worlds, and they would still be inherently the same person. This isn’t wholly a bad thing: people are more than their surroundings. However …
Occasionally, one comes across a story where some aspect of the world – or its entire foundation – alters the underlying assumptions of its denizens. These are often short stories, because it can be difficult to maintain such fundamental changes in perception, both for the writer and the reader. An example would be a setting where telepathy is universal and constant. Do people even develop the concept of privacy? What do they do with their voices, assuming the physiological ability to speak doesn’t wither away? How does it affect crime, politics, education …
I’ve been reading Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey lately (not to be confused with a certain recent smash-hit about BDSM), and struck by the way this intensively developed and bizarre world saturates every motivation and decision the characters make – but it also affects something as basic as description. The narrator is unable to see any natural color but red, and both the normal mottle of the world and the strategic use of artificial color remains consistently described throughout.
And that’s the way it ought to be, really – with the writer paying attention both to the broad changes in paradigm, and the smaller, subtler changes that influence details in everyday life. A seagoing society uses the ocean for metaphors; the daughter of a farmer may not have the words to pinpoint a noblewoman’s hairstyle.
Somewhere between the two lies a number of other possibilities … including some views that are historically accurate, but unacceptable now. How does a writer deal with slavery or religious persecution? Is it authentic to frame main characters as opponents to a dominant trend? Of course, these are questions with a great variety of different answers, but the important thing is for the writer to ask them … and not simply insert a real world mindset where it may or may not belong.
A fully realized character is a product of their environment. The setting becomes an integral part of their shape and development – and in the end, both feel more real.