If you read much fiction, especially science fiction or fantasy, you may have heard of the phrase “the willing suspension of disbelief.” It’s used to indicate a willingness on the part of a reader to accept as real the descriptions, the materiality, the phenomena and/or the validity of a world which does not exist in this universe, and in some cases, could not exist under any circumstances. You do it probably a lot more than you think. In some stories, for example, the novel To Kill A Mockingbird, many things in the novel could be real, even though the characters aren’t. We know that Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem, Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, and all the others don’t exist and have never lived, but everything about the town of Maycomb does seem real and could really be true. The lynching of a black man is real. It has happened. And it takes place in Alabama, a real state. But when we read the book or watch the movie, we are willing to put ourselves in that town in that era and accept what’s happening. It becomes real to us, if only for a short time.
On the other hand, what in the TV series Star Trek seems real? Only a few things, such as San Francisco, where Star Fleet headquarters is located, and some of the humanoid characters—James Kirk, Captain Picard, etc. But everything else in this series is so unlikely and non-real, especially a space vehicle that is capable of traveling many times faster than the speed of light. It’s so far out of touch with current concepts of space travel that it seems ridiculous just to think about. Yet we watch. We suspend our disbelief to a much greater degree than with Atticus Finch, but suspend it we do, and we enjoy the show.
The term “willing suspension of disbelief” was apparently coined by the British author and poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1815. He used it to refer to the fiction of his day, which didn’t include science fiction, though there were some elements of fantasy in some works prior to that time. (For example, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.) After all, the first real science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, didn’t appear until January, 1818, and Jules Verne, who published his groundbreaking sci-fi in the latter half of the 19th Century, hadn’t gotten started yet either. I doubt that Coleridge ever had any idea how far his phrase would be taken in the 20th and 21st Centuries.
But while the term refers to the acceptance of a fictional universe, it refers to what is, I believe, essentially a passive action. We simply let ourselves go and accept what the author has to offer. But I submit that there is really an active process in which we are engaged when reading science fiction. Especially good science fiction which fleshes out a non-real or fantastical world in so much detail we can actually see ourselves living there. Or at least visiting. A reader has to actively submit to the author’s world and allow him/herself to be transported there. We see and smell and taste and touch and hear things the author has not even suggested or described because we are so intensely embedded in that world we instinctively know more about it than the description has suggested. This is a much more active process than just accepting the non-real world for the duration of the novel or the movie. For example, can’t you just feel the heat and humidity of an Alabama summer without air-conditioning?
As a science fiction author, I became aware of this requirement of a sci-fi novel only slowly over a period of many years. (Too many years to list here.) To keep a reader’s attention, the world has to be believable, and well to the end of the novel. I’ve tried to set up the fictional worlds and characters in my novels to seem real, to draw the reader in and keep him/her there, but time will tell whether readers agree.
With all the advances in astronomy over the past quarter century, we’ve learned a lot about the universe, especially about out own galaxy, the Milky Way, and even more about the area within a few hundred light years of own home planet. We’ve learned that there are planets orbiting other stars, stars relatively nearby in our little corner of this galaxy, and that some of them are, potentially anyway, havens for life because they could have liquid water on their surface. If there is life out there, what does it look like? In all probability it won’t look like us.
But if you watch science fiction shows and movies, and read science fiction books, the largest majority of aliens are humanoid in appearance, i.e., they look like us. It’s as though we’re stuck giving aliens human characteristics and foregoing the expense and difficulty of designing aliens in other forms. We like our aliens to look like us. As I wrote once in a blog post on this blogsite, if I see an alien that looks like a human but just slightly modified, (like, for example, the alien that was supposed to have landed near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947) I always know it’s a fake and isn’t likely to be real. Real life from another planet will almost certainly not look like us. Yet we continue to portray extra-terrestrial life as humanoid. Why is this?
I’ve come up with three reasons I believe aliens are so frequently portrayed as humanoid. First, and this is true in movies and TV, it’s easier to dress up an actor in a humanoid costume and have him/her play a role. Getting an actor into a non-humanoid costume would be much more expensive and time-consuming. Easier to have it with two arms and two legs and a head with most of the sensory organs built in. (The evolutionary process of sensory organs settling in an anterior head is known as cephalization.) The cantina scene in the 1977 movie Star Wars: A New Hope, is a classic example. Most of the patrons of the bar were generally humanoid. Some were shaped a little differently, some had more hair than humans generally do, one had green, scaly skin (I think his name was Greedo, and he got blasted) and the bartender would look right at home on the streets of USA. A bit gruff, perhaps, and annoyingly unfriendly, but he wouldn’t stand out as unusual. Not to mention Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi . . . the list goes on.
Second, I believe it’s easier for us as readers and viewers of science fiction books and visual displays to accept an alien as humanoid. We’re so used to humans that an alien is automatically more acceptable to us if he’s only a little bit different. Green, perhaps, or arms that reach to the alien’s knees with fingers as long as our forearm, but generally like us. We’ve come to accept these creatures because we’ve seen them so often.
Third, it’s easier for us science fiction writers to invent an alien that is near to human in appearance because it takes less to describe it, and we know our readers will immediately accept it. The reader doesn’t have to work too hard to visualize it. I have to admit that most of the aliens in my (as yet unpublished) novels and stories are humanoid, probably because it’s easier to work with them. And if they’re human in appearance, I suspect we feel that they will be human in action and demeanor. The more human they look, the more human they will act. All of this simplifies writing and description. I have submitted a novelette (around 24,000 words) for publication that uses aliens that are distinctly non-humanoid, but still they have two arms and two legs, though they haven’t gone through the process of cephalization to obtain a head filled with sensory organs. I’m not sure how this will go over with the publisher, but it represents my attempt to break with humanoid characters, and do something different.
So, we appear to be stuck. Aliens are humanoid much more in fictional stories on Earth than they would ever likely be in outer space. I would like to see more distinctly non-humanoid characters in movies and books and stories. How do you feel?
Of all the words in the English language, the capital letter “I” has to be one of the easiest to type. I suppose the lower case word “a” is even easier since you don’t have to use the shift button on your computer keyboard, but capital “I” is a close second. Yet, every now and then I see a post, usually on Facebook, where someone has written lower case “i” to refer to him/herself. I always take notice, and I’m always a little disappointed that someone would go to that length to type that way.
Why? Let’s take a short look at handwriting. I’ve studied handwriting analysis (a long time ago in a city far, far away), and it has the potential to give an expert an insight into the psyche of the writer. It can provide a window into the ego, into the subconscious of the writer. People will often reveal characteristics of themselves in their handwriting they would never reveal in conversation. A lot of factors go into analyzing handwriting, including the slant of the writing, the pressure of the pen on the paper, the spacing of words, spacing of lines, the way certain letters are formed, and so on. And it includes how they make the capital letter “I”. There are so many factors I can’t list them here, and I don’t even know all of them. Handwriting analysis has to be used with care to avoid ascribing something to a person that isn’t there. As a result, a handwriting analyst has to be very highly trained, a situation in which I definitely do not belong. I do know that the letter “I” is a reflection of the self, and can reveal things about how the writer feels about him/herself. So when I see a lower case “i” in a blog or Facebook post, I always wonder about what the person is thinking. What’s going on in his/her life that caused him/her to write about themselves in lower case. But there’s more to it than that.
When someone writes with pen or pencil on paper, writing lower case “i” is simple and straight forward. Just a tiny vertical line with a dot above. But on a computer, at least with the writing programs that I am familiar with—Microsoft Word, WordPress, and Facebook—writing lower case “i” will be changed to the upper case form by auto-correct. In fact, it already has several times in this post. Whenever I’ve written “i”, I’ve had to go back and change it from upper to lower case because auto-correct has taken the lower case and made it upper. And then it flags it with that red, wavy underline because “i” isn’t in its list of acceptable words. That means that anyone who wants to purposely write the lower case version on a computer also has to go back and change it. Not as simple as writing on paper. So why do they do that?
I can’t say in any particular situation and I am certainly in no position to try to analyze it, and I suspect the reason may be different for different people. I’ve seen only a few examples of it, but it always concerns me. It tells me something about the person I may not want to know. It could, potentially, at least, be an indication that the person is feeling “down” or “blue” in some way, perhaps seriously. I always wonder if I should notify someone. (However, that could be an invasion of privacy.) If you see a lower case “i”, I suggest you wonder about it too.
Several weeks ago I attended a talk where the speaker made a comment I think worth repeating. I’m putting it into my own words here, but the comment was to the effect that today’s young people are more insistent than ever before on knowing the truth about what is going on in the world. Actually, I think that probably extends to all people, but that’s a little off the topic I want to discuss here. Someone from the audience asked, “How do you define ‘truth,'” and the speaker got onto a religious definition, which was okay, but limited, and I thought didn’t really answer the question. (It was a valid answer, but not exactly what I was expecting.) After the meeting, I thought more and more about what the speaker said, and started to wonder if there was a way to define ‘truth.’ What is the ‘truth’? What do we mean when we say we want the ‘truth’? What is it we’re looking for? Is there a definition we can all agree on?
The dictionary has several definitions of ‘truth,” several of which exist only in certain limited cases. But I’m looking for a definition that fits the above situation: what do we mean when we are looking for the ‘truth’? The closest my dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition) comes to this is, “The state of being the case: FACT,” or “The body of real things, events, facts: ACTUALITY.” Both of these definitions are close to what I want, but there are problems with them. The first is somewhat vague (I don’t know what the “case” is), and the second is overly broad. So, what’s really going on here?
In my limited cerebral wanderings on this subject, and trying to stay within the parameters given above about what people are actually looking for, I’ve come up with a definition that goes something like this. The truth is the ultimate reason, the bottom line, the real, unvarnished root cause as to why someone does something. It’s the fundamental cause of a human’s action. It’s the primary motive force driving a person’s actions. In it’s simplest terms, it’s the real reason someone does something. So often—way too often, really—that reason is hidden, and we have to guess what it is, or go to great lengths to bring it out. So much of our lives are invaded by politics these days that even the definition of a word becomes a guessing game. “What is the truth?” The FBI informant Deep Throat famously told Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein back during the Watergate era, “Follow the money.” Money, or the desire to get more, is the leading candidate for why a lot of things are done, especially in the political arena, but it’s also true in everyday life. But whatever the reason, money or otherwise, find the ultimate, bottom line as to why someone has taken a certain action, and you will find the “truth.”
This, of course, is just my personal definition, and you may have a different one, but let’s see what we can come up with. How do you define “truth”?
I just got back from the 2018 edition of the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference, (#PPWC2018) and had a great time. As usual. Lots of good sessions on many different aspects of writing, and had a chance to pitch my first sci-fi novel to an editor. He asked for the first 50 pages, which, by the time I write this, have already been sent. I met lots of good writer friends, and handed out business cards. Business cards are always good, whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned veteran.
But what I want to consider in this blog post is one session in particular. It was titled “Fantasy and Sci Fi World Building: Writing Like an Anthropologist.” It was given by Darby Karchut, who’s written several sci-fi novels. The premise of the talk was a factor in world building that I had given some thought to as I wrote my trilogy, but hadn’t gone into in great detail. When building a new world for your characters, you have to supply them with all the intricate facets of life that we have here on Earth. It’s not enough to create a planet and populate it with aliens. They have a life. They have a history. They had to get on that planet somehow, and there may be a substantial number of details you haven’t thought of that play a role in your character’s daily life. (Assuming they have days and nights on their planet.)
Ms. Karchut listed eight factors that should be taken into account when worldbuilding. 1. What is the government like? Representative? Repressive? Dictatorial? 2. What is the economy like? What are the main driving forces in the economy? Science? Politics? Food? Beer? 3. Is there a religion? If so, how religious are your characters? 4. What is life like on your planet, and how do your characters spend their daily life? What dominates their daily life? 5. What are the arts like? Music? Movies? 6. What are the dominate social groups? To which group does your main character belong? Do you have rich and poor people? Or is everybody at the same social level? 7. History. Delve into the history of your planet. That one factor can shape the daily life of your characters in many different ways, especially ways you may not have thought about. 8. Language. What language do your characters speak? How did that language originate and how did it come down to them? If a visitor comes to your planet, how does that outsider know how to speak their language?
I appreciated this session because it brought up so many things I hadn’t thought about, or only briefly considered, about my characters and their home planet. If you write sci-fi, I strongly recommend you take these things into consideration. A reader will be more likely to keep reading if he/she understands that you’ve delved deeply into your imagination and taken the time to build a complete world. That’s what makes science fiction good: imagination. More so that most any other genre of writing. A well-thought out world may help fill plot holes, too, because if a difficult situation arises, you will have already developed a fully-functional economy that will give you a clue as to how your characters will act and how the difficulty will play out.
During the past year (2017) I published on this blog two entries about tension and conflict in writing. If you’re a writer at almost any phase of your career, you’ve certainly heard of the dictum—in fact, almost a rule of law—that you have to have tension and/or conflict on every page of your creative writing story. Nothing less will do. It’s a rule I subscribe to, though I’ve also said that one or two pages without tension or conflict probably wouldn’t hurt. But I’ve begun to realize in the past few months that that piece of advice is based on flawed logic, and I would like to correct that error here. Or at least try to.
The reason I say that advice was in error is that I’ve come to realize that there are really two types of tension/conflict, and both are important in writing fiction or creative non-fiction. I’m not talking about the difference between tension on the one hand, and conflict on the other (see my blog entry of 7/16/2017 where I describe the difference), but about two different forms that the combined tension/conflict duo can take. The first form is the general background tension/conflict that pervades a story all the way through (or at least most of the way). This is the kind of tension that simmers away almost unnoticed, that the characters are always certainly aware of, but only if they stop to think about it and acknowledge it. An example might be a story about life in a submarine during World War II. (Or perhaps in a spaceship cruising the galaxy looking for “bad guy” spaceships to destroy with photon torpedoes.) Going down to three or four or five hundred feet below the surface of the ocean in a submarine is bad enough, but with the constant threat of depth charges raining down on the sub just elevates the tension level to a point where everybody is constantly aware of it. It’s in the background, it affects everyday life on board that sub, though the crew may not always be aware of it. Every crew member has his/her duty and carries it out. This is the type of tension that must be present on every page; it’s a constant reminder of the basic plot line of the story. Once the submarine returns to its home port, Pearl Harbor say, and every one relaxes on Waikiki Beach, the background tension is gone, and the story collapses. There’s nothing to hold it together. A story about sailors relaxing on a beach doesn’t hold much interest unless there’s some other background conflict.
But superimposed over that background tension/conflict is the more prominent one. This is a more immediate one. This is the tension of now, the tension of events taking place over and above the background. In that submarine, this might be the tension of a fight between two members of the crew, a fight that boils over from conflict between them that’s been simmering for days or weeks or months, dating back to well before they boarded the sub for their latest tour of duty. Or, it might be the tension of getting ready to fire torpedoes, with the ultimate realization that could bring down those dreaded depth charges and blow their nice warm submarine out of the water. This is the kind of tension/conflict that comes and goes, and isn’t necessarily present on every page. It rises and falls; it ebbs and flows, and an author can’t expect his/her characters to live under this type of stress and strain for a long time. They have to have some respite. But it is essential for the story, it provides a series of events that carry the reader along and allows him or her to see the inner workings of the main characters. It provides a look—maybe not much more than a glimpse—into their minds, into how they handle themselves in difficult situations, into what makes them tick. It gives the reader a look at the real person your character is, not the veneer they show to the world. Tap into this tension, but don’t overdo it—your writing will be better for it.
Over the past several months (late 2017 and early 2018), I’ve sent out several short stories to literary magazines around the country. Some submissions were simply in consideration for publication, while others were to enter contests. I’ve even scanned the submission requirements of other magazines to which I did not submit. (For any one of various reasons, the most common that their submission period is not open right now.) While it’s always good for a short story writer to submit and get published, and while winning a contest looks great on one’s literary resume, I’ve become concerned about the fees that some journals charge for regular submission, or to enter a contest. Most frequently, the fee takes the form of a small charge of three or four dollars which goes to pay the company that runs the submission machine. In most cases, this is Submittable. I haven’t been too concerned about that fee since it’s small enough that most anyone, even a starving literary artist can afford.
But now comes along a different fee animal. A couple of contests I entered recently charged $20 to enter, and I’m thinking about entering another one that charges even more. Keep in mind, these are contests, not general submissions. This puts the fee, while not out of my reach—at least not yet—on the road to the stratosphere, and I have become very concerned about it. Such a fee may or may not be unreachable by others, I don’t know, but it brings about a larger problem.
I’m sure the journals are using the fee to pay costs associated with running a contest, especially to pay the person who judges the entries that made the final cut and picks the winner and perhaps a runner-up and possibly a few honorable mentions. But from the point of view of those of us who are entering such a contest, a different facet of the question arises. If I pay $20 or $30 or more to enter, and I don’t win anything, what have I gotten out of it? The satisfaction of having entered and not won? Not so much. I get no publication, and nothing to put on my resume. (Some magazines give every entrant a year’s subscription to the journal, which is usually two copies. That’s at least a little better.) Many of the contests get hundreds, if not thousands of entries. My chance of winning is small, and that means that my chance of getting something for my money is also small. I’m not sure it’s worth the fee. Two or three dollars, okay. Twenty or thirty, not so much.
Basically what it comes down to is that the journal is using fees to run its magazine. Let’s say they get 500 entries and charge $20 to enter. They’ve made $10,000. If they have several contests through the year, the fees add up. Financially, it may work for them. But from the POV of a writer trying to get published, it doesn’t.
In my literary naivete, I always thought money flowed to the author. That’s been the standard for a long time. Paying to enter a contest with a meager chance to win is a reverse of the standard model. I’m not sure what can be done about it, but it needs attention by persons more knowledgeable about the publishing process than I.