Friday, September 15, 2006

Describe what you see

In our workshop this past week, we read a story in which the characters were anthropomorphic, but apart from the lines in the story where the species were specifically noted, we didn't feel that the anthropomorphic nature of the characters came through in the description. This likely leads to the "humans in animal suits" criticism leveled at some furry fiction.

As an exercise, we tried a technique stolen from a previous workshop: writing a piece or description without using the verb "to be," so you can't just say, "Martin was a fox." You have to describe the character in action, letting his or her characteristics come through in activity rather than in passive description. Overall it was a success; the trick is to remember that through your writing. Sometimes, I know, I focus more on the characters and let the descriptions lapse, but on an editing pass through, you should definitely be aware of the unique way each character acts and moves. For me, that's part of playing the story as a movie in my head, so I watch them and then write down what I see. I don't know whether that technique will work for you, but give it a shot!

5 comments:

Rikoshi said...

After participating in said workshop exercise (almost immediately after, really), I became painfully aware of how lacking in 'furriness' my current novel draft is. I think that I want to blame it on the fact that the story itself is kind of convoluted and so I've been focusing on that more than I have been on description (which I'm already notorious for underdoing, as it is).

I'm definitely going to want to make a pass (maybe after my current redrafting) and just see which spots lend themselves to having such descriptive reminders written in. Or it's quite possible that I'll surprise myself at how much is already there (but probably not!).

NedSanyour said...

Just a comment on the whole idea of, "Does Shadowdancer feel like a fox, or a woman in fox costume?" question... It is one of the conundrums of SF/FN in general, I think. One classic use of the Alien (as the Outsider, isolato or Ishmael character in fiction) is to provide insights into humanity and its nature from an outside vantage point, so to speak.
The other thing about aliens is that they can either be what humans *should* be like (Vulcans). Or they can exemplify characteristics we should work hard to exterminate, and in seeing them we can see the things in ourselves that are bad (Klingon).
I think that is the big function of aliens, to show:
What we should be more like
What we shouldn't be more like
What we are, from an outside view

So the point there is that Furry Characters are like aliens. If they are basically human and have a quality or two that is Furry, then that is all (I think) we can reasonably ask. Doing a total characterization of a fictional person is what the 19th Century Novel of Character was all about-- and left precious little room for plot! George Eliot, Henry James, dang ol' Jane bloody Austen... please please please for the love of God in Heaven, can we just have something *happen* already and stop contemplating the trembling of the heart?
So the point is this:
Drawing a character takes up tons of space and effort, and if you make a convincingly alien character, painting clearly all the little elements that a wallaby-man would have that are different from a human and detailing what he would have that would be the same, there isn't a lot of room for events. I say this because thoroughly drawn human characters, which in theory are more like we are so require less explanation, squeeze out the plot sometimes (See: above, plea to dead 19th Century British Novelists).
So what is the summation? The lesson? Don't drink beer at lunch at work while commenting on Tim's literary journal! Another lesson or comment or idea:
Take one characteristic that makes a lion-man different from a hu-man and make that his tragic flaw, and critical to the plot. That lets you make a guy who is 'animal like' in an admittedly limited way, but still serve the expedience of plot. Example: Pride. Re-do Othello with the main character as a lion-man. It works on many levels, really, from the African origin to the zeal with which male lions defend reproductive rights. And Iago is just another guy in the bachelor group looking to take down the champ.

sorry for the rambling, but that end thing I think is a good idea! It would make things that are incomprehensible about characters but important to the plot not only make sense, but be totally valid expressions of the characters non-human nature!

Tim said...

I like that one, Ned. You should write it.

Your other point is well taken, surely, and I think I should clarify what the thrust of my post was (shades of Stephen King's "IT"!). In the hypothetical story where Othello is a lion-man, the situation I was describing would be if you got "Othello, a six-foot lion man..." and then basically the same dialogue and actions that are in Shakespeare. What I'm talking about is adding small details here and there, not obsessively focusing on the lion-ness of him. For example, when Iago tells him something rotten, his tail lashes in anger. His golden eyes flash. His wife combs his mane soothingly. Just all the normal actions you would describe in any story, make them particular to your character. The specific situation here is a "furry" story, but it applies anywhere: to a story with a kid as the main character who seems adult throughout; to the story of a ship's captain who should retain mannerisms from the sea; to the story set in the past whose characters should have historically appropriate actions and statements. It's part of the larger work of making sure you are making your characters unique and distinctive to the reader.

NedSanyour said...

I think I have a couple of nebulous points, and here we go! Sorry if I repeat...

That is such a problem in SF in general! So many "aliens" are people that I know, or know of, but with tentacles. That seems annoying, but is acceptable for a couple of reasons. The point of 'aliens' in many stories is to critique certain aspects of humanity and put the otherness of aliens on it to make the criticism either easier to swallow or easier to see. The other thing is that it is hard to draw complete characters, much less ones that are totally non-human. So the non-human part is sometimes given short shrift.

The examples of 'furriness' you discuss seem, to me, sort of... superficial. The idea that he lashes his tail is fine, as is the whole mane combing. But is that a fundamental lion-ness?

I guess the problem is that it is tricky to translate animal characteristics into human traits, so we go with the physical traits. But there are established stereotypical traits, (Lions are noble. Dogs are loyal. Meerkats are cuddle-rific!) and when the character has that sort of trait, too, that makes a difference. It is oft too much to ask of a story, that it carry a plot, a new world, and a whole bunch of inhuman characters that must be described from scratch because they aren't like people we know. Also, you risk creating a bucketfull of one-dimensional characters who each embody a couple of human traits. And one fully-drawn hero (but that sort of describes much of SF/FN really.)

I recall some stuff like what I am trying to say (with traits mapping from animal to the anthropomorphic character) in that Breaking the Ice book, and I liked the way it worked there. Something about the positions in society the different animals had...

Oh, just thought of an author of Mainstream SF who does that well with animals... Cordwainer Smith! His animal people are sort of animally.

But the thing is I don't write enough anymore, and not in the genre at all, to have a real opinion, or experience. But this was more fun than working!

Tim said...

I think we're talking about two related but different things. Your point, a good one, is that the essence of the character should be reflected somehow in the form chosen. For instance, lion-men should be proud and regal, jackals should be shadowy and opportunistic, snakes should be on a plane, and so on. Not disagreeing there.

What I'm focusing on is, as you say, superficial, but it contributes to the reader keeping the visual picture of the person in mind throughout. For instance, in "Othello," Shakespeare doesn't obsessively remind us that Othello is a Moor, but he does toss enough references into the play that his skin color is definitely something the reader keeps in mind. And yes, seeing the play performed, you would be seeing him so wouldn't need those reminders; what I think they do is remind you that the other characters in the play also see his skin color and it is a matter of some importance. THAT is the kind of thing I'm talking about, not whether he is an archetypical Moor or not.

I do think it's possible in many cases to write stories where the narrator's appearance isn't a big issue. LeGuin was all upset at the "Earthsea" movie because they made all the characters white, but honestly I didn't notice anywhere in the story that it made a difference, and apart from a few mentions at the introduction, she doesn't do anything to call attention to it, really. I just think that in this case, where we are writing stories where the characters have such distinctive appearances, we should make sure we don't lose that when it doesn't cost much to toss a few words in here and there to remind the reader.