Writing in the sense that we talk about it here relies on the artistic use of language. We use words to inform, influence, and most importantly of all entertain. It’s understandable then that when we use foreign settings, fantasy universes, and alien worlds, we might want to use elements of foreign languages to match those settings.
Kayfabe is a term used in the professional wrestling business to describe the keeping of appearances to create the illusion of hyper-reality of the sport/entertainment. We all know that the actual matches in modern pro wrestling is choreographed – I hesitate to use the word ‘fake’, simply because of the athleticism and inherent danger involved; it would be like calling stuntwork ‘fake’. – but the efforts of kayfabe are to create that same suspension of disbelief an author uses to engage a reader.
Meanwhile, most of the actual events are determined by the writers and ‘bookers’, the men and women who decide on the match cards, the storylines, and so on. They would be the reality behind the scenes, the wizard behind the curtain. Though the wrestlers and other performers have input, sometimes significant, it usually comes down to the Powers That Be to make the final decisions.
How does that all come together in The Opening Bell?
It’s been a while since we’ve sat back and talked about a writing trope or two. With that in mind, let’s take a casual day today and talk about an interesting bit of trope-y-ness: the Noodle Incident. Sometimes known as the Throwaway Backstory Event, a Noodle Incident (NI for the remainder of this article) is some piece of past history a character in a piece refers to, but never elaborates on, usually with the implication that the event was too ridiculous, unbelievable, or over the top to need to be elaborated on. Whatever the reason for doing so, the NI remains a point of untouched history and, in a long series, may be referenced multiple times.
Last week, we talked about embracing tropes and archetypes, as well as a little bit about how to use them properly. In the further past, we specifically spotlighted reconstruction and deconstruction as means to that end, but there are other ways to make tropes acceptable and endearing to your readers. Get ready for some interior decorating, friends, as we hang some new lampshades on everything!
When you create a character in your works, the depth of that character is entirely up to you, the writer. Every speck of information the reader has about the character is brought to it by your words. Even implied information is implied by other words you write or facts you bring up. It all falls down to you and this is nothing new. It is, however, important to bring back up again as we move onto to today’s topic: how character details can inform us about the ‘realism’ of your fictional world and how they should also be restrained by that.
As we have already seen, it’s a scarily common element of many books (especially of the Young Adult persuasion) to have parental figures be absent, sometimes all adult authority altogether. There’s a connected and perhaps even more common trope, often known as the ‘Adults Are Useless‘ trope, wherein the parents and other adults of our youthful protagonists are around, but range from utterly clueless to downright obstructive to the resolution of the plot.
It is a common shortcut in writing genre fiction to make nonhuman characters look different, sure, but to be close, if not identical, to human in many of the intangible points. Emotions, thought processes, and other mental/spiritual/emotional aspects tend to hew close to the human spectrum. Oh, there may be minor differences, little quibbles here and there, with the occasional notable quirk, but the tendency of many writers is to stay close to the human experience.
In and of itself, this tendency isn’t necessarily bad and it’s certainly not a deal-breaker to me as a reader. Knowing that the aliens in a piece are perhaps not so alien after all can give nonhuman characters a certain built-in level of relatability, not to mention such situations can offer the author a chance to explore a number of real-world social concerns, such as prejudice and racism, in a fantasy or science-fiction setting. On top of that, we do tend to write best the things we understand most and most of us are far more familiar with humans than, say, the starfish people of Cyngus XII.
Still, there’s also a point to be made for taking the plunge, to make the effort to make the aliens or fantastical races in a book truly unique species. The concept of cultural differences isn’t hard for most of us to deal with it as it runs along the lines of something familiar to us (the same political and social differences of different cultures here on Earth), but pushing deeper into trying to create a truly ‘alien’ outlook on the world is something quite hard to accomplish. It’s one thing to take the human template and tweak it in one direction or another, but to try to wrap your head creatively around something completely different than the human psyche, that’s quite another.
When it is done well, however, it adds incredible depth and an added degree of immersion into the fictional world the author is creating. Aliens being truly alien represent another mystery for your readers to unlock, and it simply makes more sense to them that something so far removed from our species should have real and possibly quite stark differences in how they think, feel, and react. The problem lies in the fact that, when done poorly, it can simply be confusing and a waste of authorial time and energy.
Think about it: such a feat does basically add another extensive plot to your book, that being the introduction and exploration of this alien race or races. Whether you want that or not, you have it, simply because you must explore this race in your book or else your readers will not have a point of reference or relatability with the alien characters you introduce. Also, there’s the pitfall of introducing something alien, yes, but also uninteresting, at least in a dramatic sense. If the alieness of a species is going to be part of the plot, it would be wise to weld that exploration of the race deeply into it. After all, you have to spend the time to establish the race to your human readers! You might as well spend that time wisely and integrate it into the larger plot, right?
If you’re a genre writer whose next work incorporates nonhuman species, take a moment to consider just how different from humanity they are and whether that level of difference works for your purposes and for your book. Many approaches are valid, from ‘like us with a different skin color’ to ‘unfathomable cosmic entity’, so you have to tailor your approach to the alien with the needs of your works and the desires of your readers.
Got a thought, question, or input? Drop a line in the comments below!
Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!