I know it’s probably not wise to admit to really liking big Arnie’s movies but, what the hell, I do! I’m not blind to the challenges he faced in the acting department though. Nonetheless I do admire the fact that he was smart enough to play to his strengths rather than trying to be something he was not.
Let’s face it, could anyone else have played the Terminator better? I think not. Some would say that his success as the Terminator was thanks to clever casting but I prefer to think that Arnie knew his limitations and was not too proud to admit to them.
There are all sorts of deep and meaningful things I could say about playing to your strengths and knowing your limitations but this is a personal blog so I’m just going to say that I learned about some of my limitations over the weekend and I’m not going to boo-hoo about them anymore.
As a writer I know that I am never going to give Shakespeare anything to worry about and I’m pretty sure I won’t be bumping anyone off the bestseller lists either. But. That was never my intention. I wanted to tell a story, a long story, in a way that hadn’t been done before. I still do.
Right from the beginning I knew my approach was risky because stories about aliens and alien planets are usually told from the perspective of a human observer. That human perspective makes the aliens accessible. It also gives the author some very powerful tools to work with.
I chose to tell my story in a different way and so I have had to find different tools to work with. Some work, some don’t but I have decided to stick with some of my choices.
One choice that will probably cause readers a lot of angst is my dialogue.
‘“Apologizing for disturbing important work,” the Messenger said without any trace of sarcasm.’
In normal dialogue this would read as “I apologize for disturbing your important work”.
That is how we, as humans, would say it but the Messenger is not human. It is humanoid but the differences are more than just cosmetic. For starters my humanoid aliens are true hermaphrodites, meaning that they can take on either the female or male reproductive roles. Which role a particular alien takes depends on who wins the mating battle. The winner takes the male role while the loser takes the female role. The consequences to the loser include an almost 100% chance of bearing an offspring. And the consequences of that can be dire.
This kind of biology directly affects the language as well as the behaviour of my aliens. When ‘he’ and ‘she’ have such personal and private connotations ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘we’ and ‘us’ take on a different meaning and context as well.
Still on the theme of biology, these aliens do not have vocal chords or lungs as we know them. Their mouths are solely for feeding. Communication occurs via the cilia which are like the pipes of an old pipe organ. Thus even the most ordinary of speech involves harmonies and discords which are understood as giving tone and inflection to what is said.
Last but not least, the cilia are connected to scent producing glands which reveal the emotions the speaker is feeling. Most adults can control these tell-tale scents but in order to do so they have to try and ‘distance’ themselves from those emotions. This need for distance and control is again reflected in the grammar and phrasing of their speech patterns.
Then there is the question of courtesy. In a strongly hierarchical society courtesy can be a question of life or death. Drawing attention to oneself is neither courteous nor wise and how you refer to someone else can be even more critical.
There is precedent for this extreme courtesy amongst many terran languages as well. The two that I’m most familiar with – French and Hungarian – both have completely separate pronouns and verb forms for saying ‘you’ to a superior or ‘you’ to an equal. [For those interested they are ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ in French and ‘te’ and ‘ön’ in Hungarian. From wiki : ‘Here “you”,[in Hungarian} the second person, is grammatically addressed in the third person.’].
The language of Vokhtan solves this dilemma by removing pronouns from the language almost completely[except for ‘it’ and swear words]. In Vokhtan the word ‘you’ is considered so offensive that it is only ever used as a profanity. So if I, as a human said to the Messenger from the earlier example “Can you direct me to the waste pit?” I would probably be killed on the spot. Vokhtah really isn’t a great tourist destination.
For all of these reasons I made a decision to be true to the biology and culture of my characters in all ways, including dialogue. I’ll be honest, if I could think of a way of making the dialogue easier for readers to understand without losing the biology I would but it’s just not possible. Like it or not the Vokh and the iVokh are real to me now and I can no longer remake them into a more convenient form. So like Arnie, I’m going to play to my strengths and pray like crazy that my future readers will forgive me for making them work so hard!
I wish I could post a picture of what my aliens look like but my artist-in-residence is not happy with the original concept art so my hands are tied. When the Daughter speaks I yank on my forelock and slink away. After all, how many artists are prepared to work for nothing more than a roast dinner?
I know it’s only been a couple of days but I’ve missed you guys and it’s good to be back. 🙂