Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Theme-Worldbuilding Integraton Part 2: The Use of Misnomers

This Part 2 of Theme-Worldbuilding Integration is about the weaponized misnomer, a writing technique derived from your reader's everyday world.  

Last week we began to discuss integrating two of the moving parts, the basic components of story, the theme and the worldbuilding.

I should repeat here that even urban fantasy or contemporary romance stories need "worldbuilding" -- because the "real world" setting you are using is actually a construct, a "setting" -- like the cardboard "flats" of a play or the false building fronts of a Western set.  They have to "look real" -- but in reality, they aren't real.  That's part of the charm. 

You as a writer are creating the illusion of reality, not reality itself.  So you must build that illusion carefully.

Last week we briefly enumerated the two separate principles, theme and worldbuilding, and illustrated what it means to combine them.

-------QUOTE FROM PART 1----------------
How do you integrate Theme and Worldbuilding?

The World details you bring into high relief to showcase your characters to your readers are the details that sift through the filter of your theme.
--------END QUOTE---------------------------

You can later write another story or novel in that same World, using a different Theme, and present a totally different aspect or angle on that World.  All of the details of a World you have built do not belong in every story set in that World.  Theme is the grid through which you sift your whole World to find the pieces that belong in a given story.  Writing several stories or novels in the same World using different Themes creates a binding uniformity among the stories, luring and even compelling readers to search for more.  

This "Integration" procedure works even if you don't invent a World whole-cloth, but use our "real" world as your World.  Each Theme sifts out different details to portray that world.  Everything else is left out. 

The detail we'll focus on here is the use of the weaponized misnomer in the portrayal of a Culture. 

At the intersection of Theme and Worldbuilding lies the story construct called Culture.

The culture of your characters, especially if they are alien, has to be defined both in terms of your reader's culture (writing for Americans is different than writing for British) and in terms of your characters' culture(s).

One tool for creating that kind of dual definition is the use of language.

One thing the cultures on earth have in common is the way language is used to manipulate the thoughts and emotions, in fact the beliefs, of other users of that language.

The "misnomer" is one example of language used as a weapon.

If a misnomer is dunned into a population long enough, widely enough, its inherent inappropriateness becomes forgotten, and then it becomes a weapon to mold the thinking of the population and the word itself becomes re-defined.

One mainstay of traditional Romance novels that leaps to mind in this regard is the oxymoron "arranged marriage."

If it's "arranged" (i.e. the reasons for the marriage have nothing to do with the souls and characters of the two involved) -- then it can't be a "marriage" (i.e. a mingling of two Souls into One, yet still separate and distinct individuals.)

There are also arrangers of marriages who function on the Soul level, Match Makers who search out pairs who will, once they meet, "click" together like two magnets joining.  There are a few novels about such feats of magic which result in the strongest marriages, true love of Soul Mates, and many more novels about how failure in that function produces disastrous unions.  Disaster is inherently more dramatic -- isn't it? 

Many more stories exist in reality of the Match Maker's fine art of bringing two souls together who are in fact destined for each other.  The true Match Maker's gift is to short-cut through the random hunting for a mate, and bring two people together while they're still young enough to have a large family and prosper as well.

The Match Maker does not "arrange" marriages, but tries repeatedly until that "click" occurs between two people.  

On average, the "arranged marriage" is usually no marriage at all, and thus the term is an example of what I'm calling here a misnomer.

We use misnomers both as a shortcut so we can refer to complicated topics with a single syllable or two, and as weapons of derision or dismissal.  Portraying that technique in dialogue gives a writer the chance to depict the culture of the characters. 

Consider the political terms "Liberal" and "Conservative" -- usually those who employ these terms know what they are referring to (a philosophy, a theme).

Both terms are misnomers.  "Liberals" don't have a focus on liberating you from themselves.  They are also called "Progressives" but never say toward what they are progressing!  I've always suspected it's because they don't know, but I found out what they are progressing toward by researching Thomas Paine.  Until I found out what that goal is, I thought I could use the label Progressive.  

Here's a Canadian blog entry that gives a quick rundown on just how much of a misnomer both "Liberal" and "Progressive" are, and what the underlying philosophy really is, where it came from and why.  None of those details matter to you as a writer, but you should read this to see how this theme-worldbuilding integration process works. 


And "Conservatives" don't preserve anything at all, least of all the Constitution.  It's just as much of a misnomer as "Liberal,"  and is used in about the same way.

I'm all about change and the future, and neither Label applies to me!  I'm all about cleaning up our technology's effluents.  No creature can survive in its own excrement.  I'm all about one-world government because I expect "people" of some kind from all those planets we've been discovering lately to arrive and need dealing with. 

But the one-world government I want to see would be arrived at as all the other countries in the world ditch the parliamentary system which is wide-open to dictatorship and/or mob-rule, and adopt the US Constitution, become Territories of the USA for a few generations until they learn how to function under such a strange government, then apply for statehood in the USA -- eventually in a few hundred years we'd Progress toward the United World of Earth with a government that could make treaties with aliens.  I doubt you'll find my politics represented anywhere today.  That could be why readers find my Alien cultures so very - um - Alien.

We're discovering planets so fast now, it's a race against time to be able to deal with Them!


That's an article about the ongoing attempt to make "First Contact" with whoever is out there.  Like the scattering of "announcements" about progress in the chase of the Higgs Boson, the ongoing announcements about planets and probability of other civilizations within our reach, since it "never happens" it's possible to get so tired of this stuff that you will eventually miss the real announcement, or not see it coming in time to revise your current novel into a lasting classic before it's published. Note that now we have a definite announcement about the Higgs Boson, and also very definite results on planets around other stars, our model of reality is changing. 

And,  I'm all about Universal Healthcare, too, but with no government component involved.  We need a cheap and efficient system, and government has never yet made anything cheap or efficient!  A good Science Fiction premise would be the invention of a government system that did produce cheap and efficient services.  

Also on the subject of Culture, I'm all for solving the problem of income inequality!  It irks me no end that in this day and age we still have people who are poverty-stricken life-long -- that is our living shame, a monument to our lack of morality.  It's also stupid beyond belief. 

So I think about poverty as a social problem, and take it very seriously.  It's something we must solve because if those aliens arrive before we do solve it, we will be at a massive disadvantage.  "A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste" -- we can't afford to have poor people who aren't poor just for a little while during their twenties between leaving home and establishing their own career.  Letting people get trapped in poverty is a mistake we can't afford.   

But I look at the solution that our culture's government offers, and it is "income redistribution" (another misnomer -- study these misnomers carefully because it's a doozie!  Misnomers are the key to theme-worldbuilding integration, so study how they're used in our reality.)

The US tax system now takes "income" or "profits" from the wealthy business owners or corporation coffers to give it to the "poor" with the objective of evening out the distribution of "wealth" so we're all "in the middle."  I've watched that all my life, and studied history for an instance where it worked.  I want it to work.  It should work.  It makes no sense that it doesn't work.  BUT it hasn't worked yet.

The idea is if you give poor people money, they will then have more money.  Somehow that's a fallacy.  It's up to fiction writers, especially Romance writers who deal with family stress, strife and struggle, with dreams and aspirations, to dig out that fallacy and resolve it.

I suspect the misnomer will play a part in those stories, and I suspect there are at least a hundred novel themes buried in that fallacy.  The misnomer is how a culture sells fallacies to its members.

Once the writer masters the coining of misnomers, Alien cultures in which Human- Alien Romance can flourish will be easy to create.

To do that, study the real world through the sifter of Theme.  Look at the real world from all these different belief angles.  That's how you generate characters who are distinct from each other -- they have different philosophies and so their lives have different themes, and therefore each sees the world as a mosaic composed of different pieces than other characters see.  Then your characters will argue with all the other characters about what's true, and what's not true, creating a multitude of misnomers along the way. 

It may not be accurate to say that a culture has a language.  It may be more accurate to say that language creates culture.  When you change the definitions of words as in a misnomer, you generate a whole new culture if many people rely on that misnomer to communicate about an issue. 

So back to income redistribution.  Is it "income" that is being "redistributed?"  Or is that phrase a misnomer upon which an entire culture (the culture of your reader) is built? 

Corporations set the prices of goods and services to include taxes.  You've heard it said that Corporations don't pay taxes, customers do, and that's true.  If you've ever tried to market a product (self-publishing your own novel, for example), you know the first thing you must decide is how much to charge.  The mistake most amateurs make is not including all the expenses in the price of the product, PLUS enough left over to live on, which has to include medical and pension, doesn't it?  And many of those you're selling to are dirt poor.  Yes, today even the very poorest people read books. 

So the net result is that the poor PAY the corporations (when you self-publish you are essentially a corporation) for goods and services using the very coin that they got from the corporation, via the government, which had to hire huge numbers of lawyers and accountants to move that money from the corporation to the poor with government accountability.  Each time a dollar makes that circuit, it loses a few pennies in purchasing power.  This is stupid beyond belief, as I said above.  The poor are paying lawyers and accountants for nothing.  The poor can't afford that. 

It's like the amount of electricity generated at a hydroelectric dam has to be generated at hundreds of times the amount needed so that when it arrives at your home, there's enough left for you to use.

Every foot of transmission wire soaks up some of the electricity and dissipates it as heat.  Just imagine those Aliens arriving at Earth, taking a look at our electrical grids and laughing their heads off because they have room temperature superconductors that can transmit electricity without losing any to heat. 

I suspect the term "Income redistribution" is a misnomer because it hasn't worked anywhere to even out the distribution of wealth.  The more assiduously it's practiced, the greater the disparity between rich and poor.  You can research that historically.  I haven't found a single place where it works to even things out.

So very probably, you can't "redistribute" "income"  -- it's a misnomer.  The term makes you believe in the underlying assumption that what's "logical" is true.  That's a prime characteristic of the misnomer. 

It just sounds so reasonable and obvious.  That echo of reasonableness is the sound of the weaponizing of a misnomer -- study it carefully, learn to spot it in our culture, it is a massively effective writing technique for creating verisimilitude, especially in a Romance.  You can use this technique to make people who flat don't believe there can ever be a Happily Ever After ending actually buy into your well-built world. 

In the hands of a skilled writer, the weaponized misnomer can convince the most hide-bound skeptic that the HEA ending is possible in real life. 

To use this technique, you define a problem then name a solution in the tone of voice indicating it's the only possible solution even though the solution is irrelevant to the problem. 

What would addressing the problem of Income Inequality actually look like?

Instead of making some people poorer so that others could be made wealthier, a real solution to Income Inequality would enable the low-wage earner to earn  as much as a top executive or capital allocator.

Think about earning.  EARN does not mean to be given or awarded, but to create real wealth that didn't exist before his earning of it.  Most of the usages in today's American English are misnomers.  Watch for them. 

EARN - what does that really mean?  It means make money - literally MAKE what money symbolizes, which is wealth.  We call it "making money" because paying work actually creates wealth that didn't exist before.  Our economic system is so complicated that the idea of work creating wealth is hard to grasp. 

READ Clan of the Cave Bear

This is not only a pretty good book, but it walks you through the definition of wealth without misnomers. 

You are alone in the world, and have nothing but the bare human skin on your back.  You have to MAKE a flint knife.  That flint knife is wealth, which today we'd symbolize as money.  Money is not something the Fed or the Treasury prints.  What they print is the symbol of all the wealth that millions of workers have created, not the wealth itself.  The misnomer trick is evident in the way that is so confused in our thinking.  That confusion defines our culture.  Create an Alien Romance culture on another planet with a similar confusion and you will have a novel with verisimilitude.

So study Clan of the Cave Bear closely for the raw definition of earn, of wealth. 

You use the flint knife you made to kill something, to cut some firewood, to strike a spark and light a fire, to eat, to make a garment out of the pelt of the thing you killed, to make a lean-to for shelter in the cold night.

The knife, the pelt, the shelter are now your WEALTH, materialization of your actions which took months and months of blood, sweat and tears -- very literally, blood, risk of life, shivering nights of raging fevered illnesses, broken bones, bare survival.  And the product of that suffering is a hut, a stone fire-circle, some wood laid by, a pelt to wear, a couple of flint tools.  No money needed to symbolize that. 

There are people out there who have less, who didn't know how or where to make a flint knife, and they'll kill you to take your pelt and your shelter -- and probably not know how to use the knife to make more wealth.

With time, hard-hard work, over months, you created a little home out of your shelter, each tool that makes more tools acquired at risk of life and limb.  But life gets easier, and you're wealthy and thus a target for those who have less and don't want to do the work you've done, take the risks you've taken.  So now you need to defend what you own.  It was so hard to acquire that you know you can't do it again.  You'll die to defend what you have because your life depends on having it to get through the next winter.  That's what a corporation is -- it will fight to the death to make it through the next recession/winter. 

That's economics stripped to the basics, and within that model you can see our technological world.  Our world still works like that.  It's just bigger.  Maybe more savage because the links between people who are members of such large "families" or "teams" are more tenuous.  In the Cave, the family or tribe was all you had against the cold night.  You knew each individual, and where you stood in the culture.  In our culture, you don't even know the names of your boss's boss's boss.  Why bother?  It'll only be someone else tomorrow, and besides they work in Zurich.  

Income Inequality rests upon not knowing where to find flint or how to make a knife, and other tools, out of that raw material.  KNOWING -- education, creativity, inventing new knowledge nobody had before (fire, the wheel, agriculture), stumbling on new knowledge and resources -- it's all about KNOWING.

You can not "redistribute" "income" -- it's a misnomer.  It's impossible.  The inequality problem is real, just as "global warming" (possibly another misnomer) is real.  Even though some science now reported out about climate change has been falsified and the warming trend has not materialized in a way our paltry instruments and records can measure yet, the portrait of the effect such a trend could have is accurate.  With the climate, we know there's a world-cycle, so it's not a question of WHETHER it'll warm or cool, but of WHEN.  And we can't actually answer that question, yet.  The thing is, by the time we can answer it, it will probably be way too late to alter human activity to offset any contribution we may have made.

But if "global warming" and "income redistribution" are weaponized misnomers, who's using the weapon upon whom to accomplish what?  At least a dozen novels lie within that thematic question.  Read the news, and think about it like a writer not a voter, and see if you come up with different answers than you've ever had before.

If we don't solve the inequality problem, it will kill this civilization either from within or when our main competitors discover Earth and try to take it because we haven't managed it well and they think they can do better (as England did with India?)  Or as with Clan of the Cave Bear, perhaps our wealth will become a target we have to defend from the Aliens. 

Maybe you can't make some people richer by making other people poorer, and come out with everyone equal in the middle no matter if you use government or corporations or religion or some other cultural construct to take the flint tools from the tool maker and give them to those who don't know how to make flint tools.

Maybe the solution is to study how those people who figured out how to create wealth (chip flint, make fire, move heavy things on rollers) did it, then fix things so poor people can do that, too, so that net-net the total wealth of all humankind increases to where we can deal with the Aliens as equals.

The ideal model, to me, is not "everybody in the middle" with no rich and no poor, but that everyone spends some time poor, doesn't like it, and creates new wealth so that the net-worth of Earth goes up and UP -- not stalls at even-steven.  I think globally, and I'm species-survival oriented.  Many people who say they think globally actually use "globally" as a weaponized misnomer. 

But that's personal -- don't pay attention to WHAT I think my current "ideal" is.  Just watch HOW I think and learn to do that using your own ideal models and original goals.  You shouldn't spend your life thinking like me, but you should have that option available when you need it - a tool in your writer's toolbox.  Create a character who thinks like me, and you will create marvelous conflicts. 

To integrate Theme and Worldbuilding, focus on the art of the misnomer used as a weapon, and how when that weapon is aimed at me, I just step aside and whack the weapon out of my attacker's hand.  I don't let my mind be trapped by their misnomers.  That's because of the training of a science fiction writer that I started on when I was in 7th grade.  As a writer, you must develop a weapons grade vocabulary.

Here's how to do that.  They want me to think "income redistribution" solves "poverty" but I see the misnomer and re-think the issue.  You need a character who does that kind of thinking, and one who does not know how, or thinks the other character has trust issues or is a conspiracy theorist. 

I'm not talking about either Liberal or Conservative philosophy here, just about the way we arrive at these terms we bandy about.  Your Aliens won't be believable if they have either "Liberal" or "Conservative" views.  They would be recycled humans, and your novel would garner great derision for being "thin."  You must invent a pair of new philosophies, sell it with misnomers, then play out the conflict. 

REPLICATE that misnomer method of arriving at a term, then let your characters bandy it about, and you'll have verisimilitude in a philosophical conflict that can support a series of novels and one seriously hot romance.

Here's another example from our real world.

Fast Food

That term is one of my most worn out hobbyhorses!  I think I've written about it in this blog before. 

It has come to mean "unhealthy" -- as if SPEED meant bad.  As if convenience were a sin or a crime against humanity. 

Fast Food is the healthiest food on earth! 

Just think -- you have an apple tree in your back yard.  You get hungry.  You dash outside, grab an apple, dust it off on your shirt-tail, and chomp down.  WOW, delicious, fast, and healthy.  That tree is wealth.  Somebody bred the seeds, grew the sapling, planted, grafted, pruned, to get those delicious apples.  Some years the flowers get stripped by a storm, and no apples.  That tree is wealth, pure and simple, and it's fast food indeed.  Fast food is expensive. 

There's nothing unhealthy about speed and convenience.  Think of Clan of the Cave Bear again -- once you've laid in supplies, smoked your fish catch, it sits there until you reach out, grab it and eat it.

You put in all that work, and NOW very quickly, when you want it, you have it.  That food is your wealth, your security through the winter, and it cost you irreplaceable time, strength, health.  You converted sweat into equity. 

Fast Food does not have to be junk, it's just that junk food is popular and profitable to sell.

To fix the flaw in the fast food market, change what's popular. 

To start that ball rolling, address the core of the misnomer.  Remember misnomers generate culture.  Don't call "fast" and "convenient" wrong or undesirable. 

Create a healthy food that is irresistibly delicious, cheap to make and distribute, has reliable consistency (a Big Mac is a Big Mac all over the world), and served grab-n-go.  You'll make a huge fortune fast because everyone would prefer healthy food provided they didn't have to give up anything they love about a Big Mac and Fries. 

Yeah, it's hard, about as hard as knowing where to go to to find flint and how to chip out a knife, an ax, and other handy tools.  It's hard like knowing how to make a shelter that won't fall down.  Remember the movie ENEMY MINE?

The two space pilots trying to make a shelter that'll stand up - priceless!


That's another weaponized misnomer that has generated a whole My Culture vs. Your Culture conflagration.  Our culture is about to fall to pieces because of that weaponized misnomer.

Think about it using the process I demonstrated above.  The more people you have, the "bigger" your government needs to be to govern them all.  The more efficient you can make your government, the smaller you can make it and still have all the services you need (Border Patrol, Police, Passport Office, Prisons).

If your Passport Office is too small, or understaffed, or hasn't the technology to move at today's pace, individuals who have to go abroad to do business (create some flint knives and bring them back) won't be able to get a Passport in time to get there in time to clinch the deal.  

Big Government isn't "wrong."  Small Government isn't "Evil."  You need government to be the RIGHT size, not big or small, but precisely correct.

Government doesn't make money, it costs money.   If it's too big, it costs too much and does nothing.  If it's too small, it doesn't cost as much but does nothing right.

Like the speed with which food is available has nothing to do with the nutritional content, the size of government has nothing to do with its proper functioning.

Weaponized misnomers generate cultural conflicts to keep people busy while others sneak under the radar and pull off scams they'd never get away with otherwise.  That is an infinitely flexible plot device.  It never becomes a cliche.  Use it often and wisely.

Knowing how to cure a hide, how to cook what you kill so its parasites won't kill you, knowing something others don't know -- that's wealth.

You can't "redistribute" that ability to innovate, to think of something nobody else ever thought of, to find the answers in spite of the obstacles.  If you take away the benefit of having done that original thinking, you take away the incentive to others to duplicate that feat.  If it won't let you survive better, why travel weeks to the flint deposit and struggle through making a knife and arrowheads etc?  Why not just steal some? 

That's not a rhetorical question; it's a suggestion for a theme and a world to go around it.  Answer the question: why go make some flint tools?  Why should some other kid try to make better flint tools at a different deposit?

Stealing flint tools someone else made doesn't increase the number of flint tools in the world, just as government taxes can't increase the amount of wealth there is to make the poor not so poor.  Misnomers are the weapon that some use to make others believe impossible things are real.  Some of the best users of weaponized misnomers are writers of fantasy, SF, and yes, Romance. 

So when building your world, create a misnomer that will be obvious to the readers, but completely missed by the characters (the exact way we completely miss the ones in our world), and show how the characters discover the weaponizing of language and choose counter moves.

Teens weaponize language constantly.  It's the main occupation of teens!  Adults don't stop, just because they grew up.  Find more weaponized phrases in your world, then replicate that in your fictional world.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

  1. "And, I'm all about Universal Healthcare, too, but with no government component involved. We need a cheap and efficient system, and government has never yet made anything cheap or efficient!"

    Our family has received government-run health care for the past 40 years -- my husband is a retired Navy Captain. Under the military network, we have received the best medical care in the world. What I'd like to see is a nationwide system whereby everybody would get the kind of care we enjoy at an affordable price (flat annual premium rather than pay-per-service).

    A few years ago electric companies in our state were "deregulated." The system has been a mess ever since. There are some things government DOES do more efficiently. Would you want to go back to each state minting its own money? Each community having its own time zone? Roads being built by private entities with tolls paid to the individual owners for travel on every major highway?