Posts Tagged ‘characters’

Language Barriers in Speculative Fiction

Hey hey, so apparently I was going to write this post two years ago, got as far as “WOO” and never went back to it. Good job on focusing, me.

Language barriers are something common that you find in science fiction and fantasy stories. It makes sense, especially if you’ve got cultures that have never met before, and it can make for interesting conflict if characters can’t understand each other. Especially when dealing with alien races, you can even make up new ways of communication that may be impossible for other species to learn.

On the other hand, sometimes you need characters to be able to communicate, even if you’ve set things up so they shouldn’t be able to because of whatever reason.

Let’s go over some of the most common ways to get around language barriers. And feel free to let me know your favorite and least favorite examples of overcoming barriers and what worked (or didn’t) in the comments.

Common Language

The idea here is that there’s a common language that different species all learn so they can communicate with each other, even if they have their own language otherwise. This is your “Galactic Standard,” as it were. Of course, for this to work, your various species need to similar enough that it makes sense that they’d all be able to make the same linguistic sounds, etc.

One Person Understands

This is where you have a character that speaks its own language which is incomprehensible to the reader/viewer, but luckily there’s that one other character who knows that language and can translate or have one-sided conversations that essentially get the meaning across. Han Solo with Chewbacca, for example, or Rocket with Groot.

Universal Translator

These are magic devices that automatically translate any language it comes in contact with, as long as said language has been encountered before (to add some leeway for when you want a plot that hinges on miscommunication). A lot of the time, these can also pick up new languages after a few minutes of listening. A LOT of science fiction uses this idea, though you do occasionally come across the fantasy equivalent (such as a spell of understanding).


Maybe characters can’t understand each other, but hey, using telepathy can help even the most disparate of species communicate! (Assuming, of course, that their patterns of thought are at all similar.) This mode can often rely a lot on visuals and emotions rather than words.

Immersion/Building Understanding Over Time

For a more realistic approach, if your cultures aren’t meeting for the first time, you can assume they have had interactions for a while and might have started to pick up each other’s language. (Some people show this through some characters/species speaking with an odd grammar, though be aware this can get tedious to read.) Alternately, people can pick up languages through immersion, which is where you’re immersed in another language for a long period of time. This forces you to learn the language through everyday interactions, and also helps you learn how to convey ideas when you don’t have the vocabulary yet.

Of course, both of these methods require time, and if you need two characters to be able to interact to stop the universe from imploding in the next week, well.

Do you have a method I’ve left out, Squiders? Examples, good or bad? Thoughts on storytelling that relies on disparate characters being able to understand each other?


Character Change as a Catalyst for Conflict

A few weeks ago, my sister finally convinced me to join Pottermore and get sorted into a house. Now, I was 14 when I started reading the Harry Potter books, and over the years I have taken a lot of sorting quizzes. The good majority of those came up about 50/50 Gryffindor (due to a sometimes ill-advised tendency to jump to people’s rescue without thinking things through) and Ravenclaw (because I am a giant nerd and love puzzles). Once I got Slytherin, which was a bit thrilling, because I went through a phase where I was really into Slytherin (much like I went through a phase where I was really into the Empire a few years before), but even I had to admit that was probably a fluke.

I was expecting Ravenclaw from Pottermore. I got Hufflepuff.

“Hufflepuff?” I said to my sister, who had sat with me on the phone while I went through the quiz. “I have never been a Hufflepuff. Aren’t Hufflepuffs nice? And like other people?”

My sister is also a Hufflepuff, but she is, like, stereotypically Hufflepuff. If she’d taken those gazillion of quizzes back in the day, they all would have said Hufflepuff.

My sister said, “I think most parents are probably Hufflepuff.”

Which I’ve been thinking about, because that’s what I do. And I think she’s right. It’s not that I no longer have the qualities that marked me as a Gryffindor, it’s that I have to stop and think about what I do before I do something, to think about how it will affect my family. And it’s not that I’m not still a giant nerd or no longer love puzzles, but when presented with a choice between working on a devilishly hard Sudoku puzzle or having a tea party with the small, mobile ones, the latter tends to win out.

People change. It’s what they do. And characters also change, at least if you want them to remain realistic. There are always thread to who they were, sure, but people are affected by life. Good things, bad things. A character raised out of poverty to a life of luxury is not going to be the same person they were when they were living in a cardboard box. A character who has lost their spouse to cancer is going to be affected by that, one way or another. Characters make choices–choices that force them to reevaluate their priorities, to face the darker parts of themselves (or not to), to pick where they want to go and what they want out of life.

And that, dear Squiders, can be a wonderful catalyst for conflict within a story. It can drive internal conflict. Maybe a character knows they need to do something–for themselves, for their family, for their soul–but can’t bring themselves to separate from a part of their selves that they feel is essential. Maybe their goals are hurting them, but they’re not willing to let go. Or they know what they need to do, the change that needs to be made, but feel like it’s out of their reach.

It can drive interpersonal conflict as well. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “He’s not the man I married.” When people change, it can affect how they interact with the people closest to them. People react to pressure or success in different ways, ways that not be compatible with those of their loved ones. Someone can make a change for the better only to find their old friends trying to pull them back down, or someone can feel that someone else is leaving them behind.

Don’t forget change, Squiders. People response to outside stimulus, good or bad–and characters should too.

I think I’ll skip Thursday, but I should be back to post on Friday, unless I get swallowed by family things. (All state parks have free admission on Friday to try and combat the Black Friday phenomena, and that’s hard to say no to.) If I don’t see you then, have a happy Thanksgiving, American Squiders, and a great weekend, global Squiders.

Oh, and thank you to everyone who’s picked up To Rule the StarsWe’re sticking up pretty decently in our Amazon categories, hooray! The ebook version is still on sale for $.99, and the paperback is now available as well, so pick it up while you can if you haven’t yet!

Why We Love Reoccurring Characters

Amazon’s put Doctor Who (except for Season 9) back onto Prime, so I’ve been catching up. (I continue to have a “this show makes no sense and I’m not sure why I continue to watch it, yet there must be something because I keep watching” relationship with DW.) One of the recent episodes I watched had an occasional reoccurring character that happens to be a favorite of mine, and I may have gotten unnecessarily excited when she showed up.

That got me to thinking about reoccuring characters in general. It seems–and this may be generalizing–that people feel more strongly about their affection for reoccurring characters than main characters, in many cases. Everyone has that character that, when they happen to grace a show, book, movie, etc. with their presence, makes their day.

(Or, alternately, it could be a character that they love to hate. Or just really hate. I’m looking at you, Kai Winn.)

Why do we react stronger to characters we don’t see that often?

Well, my going theory is that we get used to characters we see all the time, so while we relate to them and may feel closer to them (or, for characters we don’t particularly like, just kind of accept that they’re there and deal with it). They lose their impact, to some degree. It’s like the friend you see every day. You’re comfortable with them, you love them, but they’re not necessarily exciting.

Reoccurring characters are like the friend you haven’t seen in a year. It’s an event when they come and visit! It’s something you look forward to. And even better if it’s a surprise, and you open the door one day to find them sitting on their porch (assuming they don’t think they’re staying with you unannounced).

It’s not that they’re better, per se. It’s just the absence makes the heart grow fonder.

I do find it interesting that when a reoccurring character becomes a main or side character for a period of time, it can go really well or really poorly. It really shows how complete of a character that character is when some of that shiny-ness wears off.

Who are your favorite reoccurring characters, Squiders? Any examples of a reoccurring character turned regular that went spectacularly well (or not)? Any experience with your own reoccurring characters?

Making Sure Your Characters Fit Their Community

This morning I went to yoga at my church. As far as yoga goes, this is pretty non-intensive–more for relaxation and stretching than anything else. I’m the youngest person who goes. Afterwards, everyone gets together to chat for a while and, since several people who come know me or my husband or the small, mobile ones, I often have several people come and talk to me for a while. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about how I need to go and what I need to get done and what order I should do it in, and I find the practice somewhat stressful.

(Also? Introvert.)

Part of that is personality, and part of it is generational.

But I do know how to play my part, because this is a part of the society I was raised in and I know its rules. Which is something we should always remember about our characters as well.

Characters, like people, are a product of their environments and upbringing. Societies have rules, and even people who are outcasts or uncomfortable with the people around them know those rules and respond to them in some manner. And if you remove a character from their base environment and place them somewhere else, even if those new rules fit them better as a person, there’s still going to be a transitional period for that character.

Authors can fall into the trap of creating a character outside of their environment pretty easily. It’s not hard to give your character modern ideals and then plant them in a society which goes against all of them. It’s one thing to have a character against the injustices of their society, but it’s another to put them there without any logical reason. People raised in comfort tend to not see issues until directly confronted with them. People raised in poverty or other hard circumstances often have a hard time seeing the way out.

Authentic characters feel that way because they feel complete. Readers can see where they came from and how they got there. Someone serving as a political mouthpiece for the author might have important things to say, but they don’t feel real.

What do you think, Squiders? Have any examples, good or bad, where a character doesn’t echo their environment?

The Importance of Perspective

Story time, Squiders. When my husband and I got married, we had an outdoor ceremony. We wanted to include a unity ceremony, but the “normal” one (you’ve probably seen it somewhere–the bride and groom each have a candle and use them to light a bigger central candle) seemed like a bad idea in unsure weather conditions.

(Actually, my cousin had an outdoor wedding a few months before ours, so I know it’s not the best idea.)

I did some research on alternatives, and we ended up doing a wine unity ceremony, which involved our mothers pouring two different wines into a Scottish drinking vessel called a quaich, which we each drank out of.

We didn’t mean any symbolism beyond your basic unity ceremony symbolism (two people united as one) but we got a lot of comments afterwards about it.

My extremely Catholic family saw it as relating to communion. Our friends from California saw it as a commentary on our love of wine. Some friends assumed that it was a Scottish tradition, since we included a lot of Scottish elements to our ceremony.

Everybody who saw that ceremony brought their own interpretation based on what they knew of us and what their own experiences related that to.

What’s my point? People interpret the world differently, based off their backgrounds, experiences, beliefs, and thoughts. So, when writing, it’s important to take that into account. A character who grew up an orphan will have a different perspective than a trust fund brat, and someone with children will react differently than someone without.

It’s important to make sure that diverse characters react diversely, and that the different characters are also different from you, especially if your background is different than theirs.

And fiction can become that much richer when you allow varying perspectives to shine through.

Do you have examples, Squiders, of either good examples of diverse perspectives, or of bad ones where everyone reads the same? Any tips on how to write perspectives different from your own?

Mother Characters in Scifi and Fantasy

There’s not a lot of mother characters as main characters in speculative fiction. I can think of exactly two in books that I read (Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly and Boneshaker by Cherie Priest). Part of me is sad, because there’s not a lot of people out there to directly identify with when I read.

But mostly I’m okay with this. Why?

Being a parent is terrifying. There a million horrible things that could happen to children at any point and, as a parent, you worry about them all the time. No one told me before I had kids that doing so would destroy my ability to partake of any media where children are hurt in any way, or where children and parents are separated, or where a parent has lost a child, or…

…you get the point.

Generally, in scifi/fantasy, terrible things are happening. There are wars and monsters and hostile aliens. And to be in a mother’s head through all that, to have to worry about her children through all that–no way. I’m perfectly okay reading about people with no familial attachments. Let them run the gamut of supernatural creatures and political machinations.

(Older children–say in their teens–are not as bad. I don’t know if I’m more sensitive to younger kids because my own kids are littler, or if it’s because older children are at least somewhat competent at life and hence do not need to be constantly protected.)

In case, you’re wondering what brought this on, I had a story idea the other day for a mother main character and

Nope octopusWhat do you think, Squiders? Know of any good speculative fiction books with mother MCs that won’t stress me out too much?

Women Characters: Defined by Relationships

Sometimes my mind gets highly analytical. I think it must come from my engineering background. But I’ve noticed, recently, that a lot of women characters are missing a husband, or a child, or both, as a way to make them sympathetic, to give them a tragic backstory.

And this annoys me, probably on two fronts: 1) as a wife/mother myself, I don’t like to think about such things, and 2) this is so common it seems like no one can think of anything else to give a female character any depth.

I think we’re all familiar with the concept of fridging, which is where a character, usually a woman, is killed, maimed, or otherwise hurt or devalued to advance a main character’s (often male) character development.

And this seems related–that a woman is often defined by her relationships to others. Now, we’re all defined by our relationships, to some extent, but it sometimes seems like a woman is reduced to the sum of hers, rather than being given her own personality.

So female leads are often described by their losses: a child or a husband, if old enough, or a parent or a “true love,” if younger. Rape is another common tragic backstory trope, and again, we are often shown her relationship to men, in this case, or sometimes even her rapist depending on the story.

Sometimes we see male characters defined by a relationship (Mel Gibson’s character in Lethal Weapon, for example) but this is less common.

What do you think, Squiders? Am I off the mark? Reading the wrong sort of books? Or does it feel like, to you, women have the same common characterizations, and they’re based off the people around her rather than herself?