Thursday, December 3, 2009

Assuming the Worldview



We've had some interesting posts this week about assumptions and world views and how we can absorb aspects of someone else's writing - which in a lot of ways encapsulates their assumptions and world views (usually not in the overtly lecturing sense, thank goodness, but in the sense that things strongly believed or part of the unquestioned assumptions that grow up with you from childhood have a tendency to 'leak' into your writing).

Of course, this meant that I, in my usual sideways fashion, ended up following the thread to somewhere completely different: how do you convincingly write a world view that is different, even alien to yours? When the base assumptions are totally different, how do you present it? And if the assumptions and world view are something that is repellent now, how do you present it in a way that is understandable and allows the character to be sympathetic?

That is, after all, what science fiction and fantasy is about. Well, kinda-sorta-maybe. Take some fundamental of our life, twist here, break there, and see what emerges.

Usually I go about it bass-ackwards because I almost always start with a story just sitting there insisting I write it. So I have to figure out what's driving the story. Okay, vampire king is killed, usurper is going to want king's heirs dead or firmly within his control. That's a pretty basic start. At this point the usurper's motives don't matter, since my characters are the king's son and his niece. So I ask myself what they're going to do. Then I ask myself why they'd do that, particularly. Bit by bit the world view and religous beliefs emerge, until I eventually know how their culture works - and that their base assumptions are very different from mine.

A quick check-point: all people are intrinsically equally valuable (Yes, it's a paraphrasing of the famous 'all men are created equal') - every person, adult, child, male, female is valuable for nothing more than the fact that they exist. I don't think too many readers here would disagree with me there. I'm not going into political arguments about anything beyond that: that's not where I'm going at the moment.

How universal is that belief?

You don't have to look far to realize that the answer is "not bloody much". The majority of humans today don't subscribe to it, and it's only very recent, historically speaking. At the time "We hold these truths to be self-evident" was written, some of the most civilized parts of the world included subscriptions to the divine right of kings (which itself started as a notion of responsibility towards those under one's protection, rather than 'oh good, let's oppress some peasants'). The idea that just by being born you had value was quite literally revolutionary.

Even now, in places where this notion has been around for generations, the tendency to slip into the more tribal view of "my kind is better than everyone else" is quite noticeable - although I'd hazard a guess that most of the readers here would still have far more respect for human life than... oh, pretty much anyone alive three hundred years ago - which of course makes their world-view and their basic assumptions pretty alien.

As for actual aliens... Well. Welcome to the House of Fun, my dear. Step inside, carefully now, and don't take anything for granted. You never know what you'll find...

Species with no concept of the individual, only the role one plays within the clan, species that make the individual-less society look comfortable and homey, spore-minds that regard all animal life as mobile incubators, cats...

How do you portray the other in an understandable way?

3 comments:

matapam said...

I like weird societies. Mostly.

I think any alien world or species will be understandable, if their motives make sense in their particular biology. If we can equate their needs to one of our own, we'll understand.

But one also has to watch out for the ick! factor. I think an Alien society can also be too yucky to really pull the reader in. _Mother of Demons_ was close to triggering my ick factor. The Good Guys have to struggle to overcome ickiness in engaging the reader's sympathy. Bad Guy Aliens are allowed to be ickier, it works with the badness.

I think the more alien your world or critters, the more you need to emphasize something held in common with humanity.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Matapam said:-

I think the more alien your world or critters, the more you need to emphasize something held in common with humanity.

Good point. I tend to get too deeply into alien cultures. I turned in a book to my writing group and they said it was like watching a foreign movie with subtitles where everyone was emoting madly but they still couldn't understand what was going on and why.

So I had to take it away and rewrite it.

Kate said...

Matapam, Rowena,

I think you have it. Finding something that's close enough to how your readers are likely to think/feel to anchor them, and then building on it can be... interesting.