Limyaael (limyaael) wrote,

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Six ways of using the insider

Now that the reading for my exams is finally letting up a bit, I can write another rant!

The “insider” in the title of this post means someone who’s a native member of the culture/world you’re writing about, or at least familiar with it. A common worldbuilding trick in fantasy is to bring a visitor, a sheltered innocent, or sometimes a complete alien, as in modern-day people crossing over from Earth, into the picture so you have someone who will ask questions about aspects of the culture and can be Explained At. But outsiders have problems, too, the most pernicious of which is limiting the stories you can tell. Using the other half of the equation and telling fantasy stories with insiders is very far from impossible. And no, it does not need to involve the characters telling each other in monologues what they should have known already.

1) Stories of discovery and revolution. Instead of discovering an entirely new world, stories like this take a comfortable, complacent insider squatting in the middle of her social networks and toss a few home truths at her. Perhaps she finds out that, hey, those lovely contented peasants singing in their fields? Totally a figment of the upper class’s imagination. Her sister’s blissful marriage to a high-status artist? Actually a slow, sadistic strangling of her sister’s spirit. Her big project that’s about to change the face of her science? Dangerous or offensive to someone in the government, and it’s been shut down.

Granted, these kinds of stories often work best with high-status insiders—those who haven’t had to come face-to-face with fairly basic truths about their world in the daily struggle with survival, until now. But they combine the appeal of the new, and of the character change often desired in outsider stories, with the fact that you can actually write about someone who has connections: a job, a family, friends, communities she’s responsible to or a part of. And now she has to do something about what she’s just learned. Hello, conflict and plot.

It’s a very different perspective from the wandering maverick or the jaded former hero or the orphaned savior of the world, and it will challenge and stretch the fantasy writer who has only ever written from those eyes.

2) The pseudo-epic. In some ways, I feel bad using the term “pseudo-“ here, as that usually has negative connotations, but, on the other hand, I refuse to call a story “epic” merely because it’s long and has a large cast of characters. I think epics should involve fundamental ripples or changes in the larger world; they should be stories of events. So, here you are.

The pseudo-epic is the story of a communal mind, such as a nation, a province, a few nations, or even just a town or extended family. The world and the characters create one another, and different perspectives are seen and taken up. (Note that this doesn’t automatically mean multiple viewpoints; well-done omniscient will do, as well). The exploration centers on what is already familiar to the characters, but, in the daily operations of their lives, some will change, some will fail, some will triumph, and, in the meantime, the reader is being invited to peer into this miniature created world.

The best examples I can think of technically belong to “realistic” novels, such as Dickens’s London. However, one could also argue for some of Kay’s novels as coming into this genre (though tentatively, because they nearly always involve some grand change in the society, too); he attempts to filter the light of a historical age through a fantastic lens, and show us how characters think about more than magic or what will happen tomorrow. I also suspect, from what I’ve heard, that Islandia would fit here, but I haven’t read it.

A pseudo-epic is nearly impossible to write from the eyes of any character but an insider or an outsider becoming an insider, I would think. An outsider protagonist just passing through, or permanently alienated from the world around him, isn’t going to allow himself to sink into the communal mind and detail it this way.

3) Negotiation fantasy. This is the, also tentative, name I’m giving to what could be a fantasy bildungsroman, the novel of growing up, that didn’t involve journeys and wars and quests and attempts to save the world. The character comes to maturity—by upending her world, not the world of everyone around her. And her actual inner self changes and is changed in response to the forces she negotiates with, such as economy, politics, nature, family relationships, disease, science, art, and religion.

I briefly thought about saying this is like fantasy of manners, but every single definition of fantasy of manners I’ve read is different, and anyway several of them include a kind of coldness or detachment towards the characters. The kind of story I’m envisioning couldn’t have too much of that, or it would replicate the outsider perspective all over again. This is the kind of tale where an outsider becomes an insider: puts away some of her childish things and accepts the responsibility of interacting with other people, not running away from them or breaking off ties with them. Like the pseudo-epic, this would be concerned with both setting and character; unlike the pseudo-epic, it would be more tightly focused.

(Did I mention that all of these ideas are provisional, shifting, and in the nature of perspectives I’m trying on to see what happens? Yeah.)

4) Culture clash. In this case, the insider does meet up with unfamiliar beliefs and ideas, but she does it while ensconced in her own beliefs and ideas, not so separated from everything that she’s a blank slate for the new culture to write itself on. What she learns is variously argued with, investigated, poked at, wrestled with, embraced, accepted, shoved away, treated with a cold shoulder, and so on. This is a subgenre about halfway between pseudo-epic and negotiation fantasy; the protagonist is probably not the only one changed, but you probably won’t show every single variety of change that occurs in everyone in the two cultures.

The best example I can think of here is Joy Chant’s The Gray Mane of Morning. The protagonist, Mor’anh, is the chosen of a god, and he travels to an alien culture to acquire better metal weapons for his very low-tech people, who are facing an enemy who already has them. On the other hand, though he admires the urban culture he encounters and stays there for some time, he doesn’t simply shed his prior beliefs and accept the new ones wholesale (which often seems to happen with fantasy protagonists who enter another culture, unless it’s evil; “everything you know is a lie” is disappointingly prevalent, as if one cannot meet another culture without the prior one becoming a conspiracy theory). Mor’anh goes back home, marries and lives and fights among his tribe, and uses his new knowledge mainly to taunt his tribe’s enemies with glories he’s seen and they haven’t. The trade of ideas and goods occurs, and more is promised in the future, but one culture doesn’t simply absorb the other.

I like this because it’s more complicated than adoption, absorption, obliteration, or the turning of one culture into a secret group whose main purpose is to hide underground, raise the Chosen One, and complain about how much better things were back in the good old days. Complication is a definite bonus for me, because it’s harder to write and make intelligible, and things that are harder to write make me try harder.

5) Showing of everyday life. This is the kind of story I’m trying to write right now, and struggling with. The insider protagonist demonstrates her world’s philosophy, social class, and belief structure in what she implicitly assumes is true. The constant interjections of new ideas might be considered, but they’re as often rejected. She knows what she believes and clings to it. If she changes her mind, it’s for good reason, not just because the new ideas are shiny or because some old woman is telling her a tale of a lost kingdom in a stentorian voice.

In other words, this is the story of the average person in your fantasy world—not the breakaway genius, not the unfortunate exile who will be summoned back to a new position of power, not the amnesiac with a mysterious and tragic past just waiting to burst on him like a flood. The kind of person who, in fact, usually ends up acting as a jealous rival to the genius, a stupid guard or henchman chasing the exile, or the nearly witless local person a little uneasy about the amnesiac. You know. Them. The normal ones.

This kind of story is hard to write—for me. It can be hard to make interesting—for authors who are trained in the outsider story (like me), who assume that the only kind of worthwhile story is about the outsider, or for whom “normal” is a fighting word. But it is teaching me all sorts of things both about how often I tend to rely on protagonists who question more than this and thus provide me with an easy excuse to explain, and what stubbornness looks like from the outside, when it’s not someone righteously refusing to be cowed by enemies who want her dead or silenced, but someone who just wants the politics to go away and leave her alone because she doesn’t have anything to do with them and she knows it, thanks. If it breaks new ground, it’s at least an effort in a worthwhile direction, a lesson that can help me, or maybe someone else, write better stories like this in the future.

6) Making the status quo human. I’ve remarked before that it seems most fantasy heroes are rebels—sometimes literally so, sometimes only against conventions forced on them by their society. (This is the part where “normal” is a fighting word again, because of course conventions are forced on fantasy heroes! Who would obey them by choice?) This isn’t necessarily a problem by itself. The problem comes when the hero being a rebel implicates anyone fighting for the opposite side as not-a-person.

If I had to pick one thing that I’m trying to accomplish in writing, it would be, “Nothing human is strange to me.” Or, just this: empathy. Sometimes that means a nonhuman perspective, sometimes a questioning of my own biases, sometimes taking a side that’s perfectly available and has a voice but which is usually ignored. (Someday, I will have to put my money where my mouth is and write a fundamentalist Christian character who is not a parody or a caricature). Trying to humanize a character working for the status quo, an insider who may be working for reform and not revolution, or even someone who distrusts reform altogether, is a case of the third.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose revolution. The character you write can do so. Maybe she distrusts the rebels’ methods. Maybe she’s just cynical enough to note a lot of similarities in “revolutionist” rhetoric to what’s already propounded. Maybe she’s one of those people who is eager for change, but, as the change evolves, realizes that she’s far too iconoclastic to belong to the hero-worship, conformity, or simplification of complex issues demanded. Maybe she finds absolute fulfillment in what she has already, like her artistic career, and sees no reason to run off and join a mass movement. Maybe she’s one of the people indicted by the change; the polytheists naturally blame the monotheists who oppressed them, and she’s a sincere monotheist. There are so many reasons beyond EVIL EVIL EVIL.

Take out the revolutionary component, and you still have a story. What about writing a fantasy where the protagonist already has power and struggles to use that power responsibly, instead of growing into it over the course of the story? There’s sometimes an implication—largely given by ending the fantasy story just as the hero/ine takes the crown or the reins of government—that what’s truly important is the journey, not the destination. That’s kind of unfortunate when the destination is a new force of law under which other people have to live. So, imagine an insider who has influence. What does he or she do with it? How is he responsible? What moral or ethical dilemmas does she struggle with that can’t be solved simply by waving a sword in the air and yelling a lot?

Once again, more complications.

I’m open to suggestions about what to do next.
Tags: character type rants, fantasy rants: spring 2007

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