Tuesday, October 09, 2012
Worldbuilding with Fire And Ice Part 8: Point of View
Here's the link to PART 7 of Worldbuilding with Fire And Ice:
Part 7 has a link to Part 6 which has links to previous parts.
This is a series of blog posts on developing fiction based on themes about "Fire and Ice" (things that mix explosively) such as religion and politics, or Romance and Science Fiction. Mind and Emotion. Fact and Opinion. Name a pair, any pair that explodes, and examine how they mix microscopically - you'll find there are certain principles of writing craft, structural principles, that once mastered can be used routinely to mix-up any pair of explosives, or pairs of pairs. This series of posts is about training your subconscious to bring those principles to bear on any mixture of subjects -- any subjects. Put the conflict into the worldbuilding, then forget about it and just tell your story. That conflict will drive your plot. But it won't work for you unless you discipline and train your subconscious. Some people are born with well trained subconscious creativity, and others have to train for this job -- but the end result will be the same.
So -- to work!
I saw a tweet on twitter by a blogger who's got a book out that's Science Fiction with Christian characters. He has some good comments on Amazon from folks who loved this angle, but a few readers objected to mixing Christianity into Science Fiction.
Their objections sounded, to me, just like the objections we get for mixing Romance into Science Fiction.
You can read his quoted reader comments and blog post, with my replies, here:
The provocative title is:
Does Faith Belong in Sci-Fi?
And the comments that sparked it:
“I have nothing against Christian or Christian writers, but when I want a ‘Christian’ story, I will buy one. When I want military Science Fiction, that is what I want.”
“Pages upon pages of God this and God that … Oh GOD cut it out! If I want to be preached to, I’ll go to a sermon. When I read military science fiction, I want a good story, NOT a spiritual rant.”
“The main character had a fixation on the Bible. For no apparent reason he would start thinking about his ‘faith,’ question god’s ‘plan,’ do some soul-searching, then decide he is doing what god ‘wants’ him to do. It seemed like the author went back after writing the book and decided as a christian that there weren’t enough references to his faith, so he crammed in some more.”
Doesn't that sound familiar? Substitute "Love Conquers All" or "Romance" or "does he or doesn't he?" for "God" and it's the SAME PROBLEM.
So after I posted what you'd expect of me, all about writing craft techniques and tools being the solution (which is true), I kept on thinking about this problem.
It's a problem of an artist living inside one VIEW of the universe trying to communicate the human-drama experienced by a character living in that artist's view of the universe TO a reader who's living in a different view of the universe.
That's the problem faced by HAPPILY EVER AFTER writers trying to rev up the juices of readers who are convinced by real-life experiences that the very notion of HEA is ridiculous and not even worthy of a Fantasy story.
Then I saw a post by a screenwriter I admire no end (because he works with this problem constantly). He's author of the novel ALONGSIDE NIGHT which is becoming a film, and the author/producer of a film I absolutely adore LADY MAGDALENE with Nichelle Nichols as a brothel owner in Nevada (where it's legal).
I think this link will lead to this thread:
J Neil Schulman
Just because I've been convinced by experience God exists doesn't mean I am intellectually any less skeptical or any less epistemologically rigorous than when I was an atheist. It comes down to what one accepts as valid data. I have internal data I can't share -- which is why I don't ask anyone to take my word about it on faith.
Within minutes, 14 people "liked" that statement, and there were over 70 comments, mostly a back-and-forth between a few people who like to argue (not FIGHT, argue) which I adore, too. Arguing is almost a lost artform today, especially on Facebook where name-calling has replaced argument.
Way down that list of answers is my comment:
Absolutely valid position, in fact J Neil Schulman may have articulated the only valid position. The entire premise of God is what philosophy professionals call a "non-falsifiable hypothesis" -- and the most intransigent followers of any religion get that intransigence from some kind of very personal, very tailored to their individual identity, EXPERIENCE (i.e. Revelation). The Divine "reveals" itself to individuals. As far as I know, there's only one recorded instance of God speaking directly to an entire Nation, as a Group, in PUBLIC, and that's the one recorded as happening at Mount Sinai. What anyone living today makes of that record -- ah, well, there are so many interpretations!!! Since we're talking about The Infinite, I doubt it's valid to call any of those interpretations "wrong."
So, as writers looking for a THEME and a MARKET full of people interested in that theme, you can see where I'm going with this FIRE AND ICE series.
Religion, Politics, Philosophy, and the currently dominant branch of Philosophy known today as "Science" -- the "Age of Enlightenment" (I do hope you all know the history of the philosophical movement known as "Enlightenment" (which might be argued is actually the age of "Endarkenment" if you want a dynamite theme to worldbuild from!) -- this is explosive stuff which is center stage today.
If you're not familiar with it or can't quite remember, try this link to brush up on it or search Wikipedia:
It's all very confusing and full of name-calling. But as you re-read up on Thomas Paine, keep doing the Science Fiction thinking I've been showing you how to do, and keep asking,
"What if Thomas Paine's disaffected Mormonism is the source of a totally fallacious worldview that's been co-opted and re-purposed by displaced Aristocrats who want their thrones back?"
There's an alternate universe Romance in that premise question, if you read what's circulating on the internet now not as "fact" but as the new popular mythology that you can re-purpose into a worldbuilding exercise.
Here's the writing technique clue you need to filter all this information through:
Every story that has a Beginning, Middle, and End, has a plot-structure based on two things, the Objective and the Stakes. What the Hero needs to achieve is the Objective, and what the Hero stands to lose if he/she doesn't achieve it is the Stakes.
A character looking at his/her world from the Faith point of view (doesn't matter which religion, an alien religion would work just fine), discerns a different objective to the entire point of living a life than a character parsing the world from the agnostic or atheistic point of view.
To create a character who is internally consistent enough to seem "real" to readers of all stripes, you as the writer have to know what that character's take is on the objective of that character's very existence.
The character DOES NOT NEED TO KNOW, and for verisimilitude, shouldn't actually, consciously, verbalize that objective! That's the writing craft error that many writers trying to portray a character with Faith often make.
The writer has to choose a Life Objective around which to build a Character, then portray (in show don't tell) a consistent decision making process that always points toward that objective, very clearly, very unambiguously.
Real life is ambiguous in this area; fictional life has to be unambiguous at this level and ambiguous at the level where real life is unambiguous - think of an old fashioned photographic negative. If you want the negative to print positive, it has to be the reverse of the image you want. That's what the fiction writer must accomplish - create the negative that the reader will convert to a positive-print.
In real life, we think we hold one life objective sacred, but our actions and decisions actually point at another objective. We are driven by our subconscious opinion on life's objective, not the conscious one. The "together" person is one whose conscious and subconscious opinion on the objective of their life is the same. People with an Internal Conflict have a disparity between conscious and subconscious beliefs about themselves. This produces Plot Events in our lives that conflict, draw us in opposite directions, muddy the waters, make everything ambiguous. "Story" is the sequence of bringing those two sets of beliefs into agreement, alignment, relieving that conflict.
The artist's job is to single out one clear thread of that pea-soup of confusion we live in and portray the Problem and it's Resolution in a way that casts light (enlightenment?) on that specific thread.
Criss-crossing too many threads results in the kind of responses you see on the blog entry, Does Faith Belong in Sci Fi?
So the writer chooses a philosophical LIFE OBJECTIVE for the character then unambiguously delineates the character's decisions as pointing at that life objective.
Here are a couple of examples of what I mean by an objective:
One faith might see the object of Life as "Die in such a way as to go to Heaven."
Another faith might see the object of Life as "Live in such a way as to draw the Love of the Divine Creator into this world."
The reader then can "read" all those character-decisions and, for themselves, FIGURE OUT what that character's life-objective is. It's a rule in learning and teaching - what you figure out for yourself, you own, you possess, you have a right to USE in ways that benefit yourself as well as others.
Figuring it all out for themselves, readers then feel "empowered" too use this Faith-based view of the universe in whatever way they see fit (including discarding or scoffing at it in public).
It's not the writer's job as an artist to TELL the reader what's right and what's wrong, what is and what is not. It is the writer's job as an artist to ASK THE QUESTIONS that the reader, in the confusion of life, can't quite get off the tip of their tongues.
The Stakes is the other element that structure's a Plot.
The Stakes work best as a plot element when the character holds the idea verbally, consciously, right up front, visually reinforced.
The Stakes have to be obvious, shown in vivid imagery. The Objective Of Life is unconscious; The Stakes are conscious.
Now, the Faith Based Character's view of the world is seen through the window of the Faith-formed Objective of a)life in general and b) his/her life in particular (such as a priest may have a Calling - each life may have an assigned Calling).
The Faith Based Character sees what there is to lose in a very different way from the Agnostic or the Atheist, and that contrast gives you amazing power to create conflict in your plots and your stories.
The Faith Based Character sees The Stakes as "Souls" -- and in the case of Romance, Soul-mates, getting the right two people together so they can have the right children at the right time in order to (whatever the stakes are in that religion). It may be to save the world, save just one soul, save the universe.
The Faith Based character rarely sees The Stakes as Money, A McMansion, A Corner Office at work, A Promotion.
The Faith Based character will do "the right thing" even when any reasonable, rational view of the situation tells you that the act will result in massive loss -- of life, of job, of money, of inheritance, of a Good Name (ratting out the drug cartel boss and losing credibility with his minions because of it?). The Faith Based Character is likely to be the Whistle Blower, the one stubborn Congressman who refuses to vote for a particular bill.
Many times, such actions are viewed as "do the right thing and damn the consequences" -- as utterly unreasonable behavior, or as "brave" behavior because the unacceptable consequences obviously will destroy what the character most values (their marriage, for example).
But that's not it at all, from the Faith Based perspective.
From the Faith Based perspective, the OBJECTIVE is not to amass wealth, prestige, position, material reward, or to live smoothly within "the system." The Objective of that character, (perhaps unknown to the character) is whatever their Faith holds dear (getting into Heaven, obeying God, whatever it is).
So what appears to the Secular character as irrational and unreasonable behavior is actually rational and reasonable given the OBJECTIVE and the STAKES -- both of which are likely to be Soul-based for the Faith Based Character.
Likewise, to the Faith Based Character the Secular Character's choices and actions appear irrational, unreasonable, stubborn, and above all DOOMED.
The Faith Based Character does not see material wealth, position, fame, dominance, winning, as "at stake" -- that is liable to be lost if he chooses to do something that would logically cause their loss.
To the Faith Based Character, material wealth, position, etc. are gifts from God which are blessings if properly earned by acting to achieve the Faith's Objective, and curses if acquired by acting against the Faith's Objective.
The Faith Based Character knows he/she can't possibly lose anything of value when acting to achieve the Faith's objective.
Using these parameters in points-of-view, you can block your canvass and begin worldbuilding the background against which your characters must play out this conflict.
Now, put yourself into that mindset, then into the mindset of the Faith Based Character's opponent. The Opponent can't predict the Faith Based Character's actions without understanding the Faith's Objective -- and the Secular Opponent can't never grasp that, nor can the Faith Based Character explain it because it isn't consciously grasped, it isn't verbalizable.
The Secular Opponent can have no other emotional reaction to the Faith Based Character's (random) successes than utter FEAR, but that fear must remain subconscious because to admit it is to open the door to Faith itself.
Now, put these two Opponents at odds over winning a particular Mate. It can be a Love Triangle situation, an ex-spouse or live-in situation -- even a Gay Couple where one falls in love with someone of the opposite gender.
Now suppose these 3 Characters are all running for Public Office, or perhaps up for a major promotion, or vying for a CEO position.
Now suppose they're doing that on another planet where the Faiths are all different from what we have here.
Can you see the endless potential of tossing a really well drawn Faith Based Character into your story? It alters the paradigm, creates avenues of action that would never be considered by the other characters -- because they're "irrational."
And if you do your worldbuilding assiduously, you can use a Faith Based Character to shape your plot without demanding that all your readers be of the same faith as your character.
Mix Religion, Politics and Sexuality at the core of your worldbuilding and your plots explode off the page. Get your reader gibbering inarticulately over your characters' doings, and they will talk to all their friends about your novel, because it's so outrageous and mystifying. That will make you a best seller.