Tagged: speculative fiction

Wherein I Muse that ALL Fiction is Fantasy

DeviantArt
Creative Commons

I have thought recently about some of the principles that I believe in when it comes to fiction stories and genre. I am not speaking about genre in the more traditional sense. When I go to Amazon, I realize that if I go to the Fantasy section, then I will get results that reflect books having to do with magic, mythical creatures, swords, and the like. I am speaking in this post more to the general idea of a fantasy. A fantasy is something created in one’s imagination. Something that has not actually happened. See how that fits into fiction? Fiction is a story that never actually happened, created from someone’s imagination.

Of course the next question you have, after accepting that premise, is, “So what?” I hear you. I notice many writers and readers get caught up in the “reality ” of stories. In science fiction, I have seen some argue about whether or not space travel in X manner (notice I dodged the argument by using a variable instead of mentioning a specific method.) Some people only want to write or read those science fiction stories that reflect realistic technology. My take on it is that it is called science FICTION for a reason . If it was real, it would be called a science textbook.

What I see many authors gloss over these days, however, is what I call internal consistency. This applies to everything that is created within the story. It applies in many ways, and it requires the writer to be somewhat cerebral. Before he became delusional and arrogant, M. Night Shyamalan created the Sixth Sense. He created certain rules that he followed throughout the movie. For example, anything the dead interacted with in the physical world was red. After the surprising ending, one could go back and see all of these rules in place throughout the movie. I remember seeing an interview with him, where he described going through scenes and looking for discrepancies in the color scheme, sometimes finding a problem right as they were starting to shoot.

This, to me, is internal consistency, and is very important to me in the stories that I enjoy. I want stories to be consistent with the rules created in that world. If this is a story where the ghosts cannot speak to the living, then I do not want to catch a ghost talking to a living person, unless there is a development in the story that accounts for this. I don’t want to see a character that acts wildly outside of their established personality. Internal consistency, in my estimation, is critical in any fiction story. As far as whether or not certain elements are realistic? It is all fantasy, which is not real by definition.

Advertisements

Danny Boy: A Free Fiction Story

A free fiction short story about a young dad and his experience with the birth of his baby daughter. I wrote this a while ago as a writing exercise, just for the practice. Here are my self-imposed rules: 1) I cannot mention any emotions at all; 2) I cannot give specific descriptors, like ages and such. That is why I don’t come out and just tell you things in the story. I hope you enjoy. Let me know what you think!

Danny Boy

by J. R. Lambert

It was hard sometimes to control his grin. He once more picked at one of the holes torn in the couches. There were nine of them in this couch alone. There were seventeen of them between all three of the couches. He didn’t know what the material covering the couches was called, but it was slick and plastic-like at first, but he could stick to it once he sat there for a while. The material somehow made a fart noise when he scooted across it, which made him laugh out loud each time he tried it. In addition to the couches, the waiting room contained a vending machine full of difficult choices, a soda machine, and a few dusty, plastic plants.

With his butt numb and his back stiff from sitting, he decided to get up and walk around the room. The chink of the change falling down the soda machine seemed loud when all it was competing with was the buzz from the fluorescent bulbs in order to be heard. He slammed the side of his fist against the large red Coke button. His second Coke since arriving. The can made a satisfying spitting noise as he opened it. The fizz tickling his throat, with the Coke quenching the dryness left in his mouth after consuming two bags of salty potato chips.

He unthinkingly ran his fingers across one of the waiting room’s nearby plastic plants once again. Using his shirt sleeve, he removed a last bit of dust he had missed from the plant leaves before.

He paced the room, walking heel-to-toe. He’d once heard that feet were about a foot long, and a quick way to estimate the size of a room was to walk across it in this way. Still seventeen paces. A little bigger than his bedroom, but not by much.

A careful count of his remaining coins revealed that he had just enough left to buy another bag of chips, with a nickel left to spare. Since he didn’t need it, he decided to try rolling the nickel across the coffee table, from one end to the other. He cleared off the table top, throwing the old parenting magazines with the recipes torn out on the floor. After a second thought, he gathered the magazines and stacked them neatly beside one of the couches. The first two rolls, the nickel veered off to the side of the table, but by the third attempt, he was able make it all the way across. It was after about twenty rolls that the nickel rolled off the table and slid under one of the couches. They were bolted down, low to the floor and he soon gave up the search-and-rescue mission to recover it.

He was having second thoughts. He shouldn’t leave the magazines on the floor, someone might complain. He figured that he probably should have put them on one of the couches instead. He wasn’t sure why he hadn’t thought of it before. He decided to stack them in order of their publication date. The most recent was a Today’s Parents magazine from a year-and-a-half ago. The oldest dating back three years.

He felt silly then. He didn’t really need the table any longer, so there was no point in leaving the magazines on the couch. He arranged them in a fan shape on the table, and let out a long sigh as he sat back on the couch to admire the display, ignoring his numb butt and stiff back.

He nearly jumped when his cell phone chirped, pulling him out of his magazine trance. “dude, WTF is taking so long?” He read on his small cell phone screen.

“i don’t know man, this is some crazy shit.” He texted back.

“u ready for this man?”

“o yeah man. this is gonna b so awesome.” He felt himself grinning again.

“is michael there 2?”

“yeah, he is in there with amy. she didn’t want me in there.” His grin faded.

“that sucks man, i’m sorry. but u know what dude, you are gonna b a great dad.”

“i know, this is going to be great.”

“good luck man! my mom wants u 2 tell us the weight.”

He tucked away his cell phone, and vaulted himself over the couch to the vending machine. His third bag of chips, but heck, when wasn’t he hungry? He plunked in the last of his money and was halfway through the bag when Michael trudged in. He stared intently into the chip bag, as though it held some solution to an awkward situation.

“Hey man, I just thought you should know that she is doing okay. It has been slow, you know,” Michael offered.

“Who is okay, Amy, or my daughter?” Danny said with more acid than he had intended.

“Look man, this is weird for me too. I mean, my girlfriend is in there giving birth to your baby. I mean, you were only with her for two weeks. I have been with her for eight months now. I mean it’s all pretty weird. For all of us.” Michael declared, with exaggerated control of his voice.

“I know dude. I’m sorry,” Danny allowed hesitantly.

“Amy.”

“Amy, what?” Danny asked.

“Amy is doing fine. Your daughter is not here yet, but the doctor says Amy is almost fully dialed, whatever that means. I think it means she’s almost ready.”

Danny tried unsuccessfully to hide his grin from Michael.

“Anyway.” Michael turned and left the waiting room.

The longer he waited, the more slowly time seemed to go. He returned to his basketball game, using the trashcan with the lid removed, and a piece of his geometry homework crumpled into a ball. He had become bored with it forever ago, but couldn’t think of anything else to do that he hadn’t already done at least twice before. He started counting how many in a row he could make again. One, two, three…

He was at forty-three when the nurse came in. She had a stiff demeanor, and her uniform was crisp and faultless. He involuntarily looked down at his own cargo shorts, stained t-shirt, and tattered Vans.

“Time to meet your baby,” she managed to say with an almost perfect absence of enthusiasm.

As she followed the nurse out of the waiting room, and down the hall to the baby observation room, he saw Michael down the hall, crying. Sobbing like he was the baby, in fact. I hope Amy broke up with that bastard. About time, we should be together as a family now that we have a baby.

The nurse gestured toward one of the babies contained behind the glass. His grin broke out and split his face.

“Isn’t she the most beautiful thing you ever saw?” He gushed. He felt his whole body flush with some type energy, like that time when he was in third grade and drank all those Red Bulls and stayed up until 4am. The nurse had an unreadable blank stare and stood there stiffly.

“I hope she broke up with Michael, but you know, even if she didn’t.” His voice trailed off momentarily. “Well, you know, she is such a beautiful baby, we will make it work out somehow. One time my dad was here, and I was in there. Well, not here exactly, but you know, like this. I wonder if he felt like this. I just know she is such a great baby. I don’t know why, but I know.”

The nurse rattled off some statistics about the birth he knew he should probably be listening to, but he was so captivated with this little person he saw in the window. He put his hand up to the glass, as though he could somehow touch her through it.

“Danny.” The nurse said sharply, which caught his attention. He realized that the nurse had been standing there in silence for some time while he had stared at his new daughter.

“She didn’t’ make it,” she said after he looked up at her. “You know, sometimes these things happen.” She added, with a practiced cadence.

He turned his head back to his precious daughter at the same time that his mind searched for the meaning behind the words he had heard, but could not quite made sense of. She didn’t make it. Who? She didn’t make it where? Amy didn’t make it where?

The color drained from his face and he snapped his head back to the side and stared at the nurse. He felt his stomach knot up, as if someone was twisting it with a pair of pliers. The Cokes suddenly felt like acid in his stomach. He was unsure of what to do, what to say. He didn’t know if he should laugh or cry, or…what?

Amy didn’t make it? She’s gone? Just like that, he was a single parent.

A Pint with the Professor: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Characterization

Maslow’s Hierarchy Applied to Fictional Characters

Recently, both of my youngest two children have been dealing with croup, which has reminded me just how much sense Maslow’s Hierarchy makes in everyday lives. My youngest was in the hospital briefly, which also explains the lack of posts. Sorry. 🙂

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs  makes sense in real life, and also makes sense when looking at characters in fiction stories. I recall the symphony director that worked with Metallica on their S & M album talking about how the orchestra sometimes worked harmoniously with the band, and other times worked in disharmony with the band, to create something amazing. I think the same is true in great stories. Humanity can be expressed accurately, through the careful adherence to what is known about humans, or it can be a character study of someone who falls well outside the expected norm. Either way, having an understanding of the norm is an important part of work that embodies the use of such knowledge.

The Hierarchy

In Brief

The hierarchy is organized such that each level of the pyramid rests upon the other. So that lower level needs need to be met before higher level needs are able to be met. For example, food is at the bottom, with the idea that someone who is starving is not likely to have the time to spare to worry about whether or not he or she has friends. So physiological needs have to be met before safety and security needs are worried about. Safety and security needs have to be met before social needs are worried about. And so on and so forth.

Physiological Needs

These are basic, biological survival needs. This includes:  Air, Shelter, Water, Food, Sleep, and Sex. Some argue that sex does not belong here, as it is not essential for survival. Maslow argued it is a biological imperative, the drive to procreate.

Safety and Security Needs

The need to feel secure and safe. This includes: Physical Safety, Psychological Safety, Economic Security, and Social Security. Note that this is both physical and psychological. If a tiger is attacking, one is not physically safe. If a tiger may attack at any moment, one does not feel psychologically safe.

Social Needs

This is the need to belong. This includes: Friendship and Family, and the need for Intimacy. As we learn more about the brain, it shows us more and more that we are physically designed within our brain structure to connect with others.

Esteem

This is having self-respect and the respect of others. This includes:  Self-esteem, Confidence, Respect of Others, and Achievement. Notice that we are moving definitely more into the realm of the psychological. The inner world of the person.

Self-Actualization

A person realizing their full and complete potential. This includes: Creativity, Problem Solving, Innovation, and Fulfillment. Maslow saw achievement of self-actualization this as relatively rare. Think of Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Buddha, and Martin Luther King Jr. Maslow saw most people in real life as being in that state of seeking self-actualization. Oftentimes, characters are in this state as well.

Application to Characters

One obvious application to fictional characters is their story as they strive to meet the needs of one of more levels. In dystopian novels, for example, characters are often trying to meet the basic physiological or safety and security needs. Food and a safe place to live can be compelling needs. Application need not be restricted to the lower levels, however, as there are great stories at all levels of the hierarchy. Think of a character that is striving to find a place where they belong, or people that they belong to. Think of a character trying to achieve something important, while also struggling with self-esteem or identity issues. And at the top of the pyramid we have someone finally able to solve a major problem in the story, or fulfilling some purpose or fulfilling a purpose. Perhaps they had to struggle up the pyramid as the story progresses in order to get to that fulfillment.

One thing about fiction is that characters are often larger than life, or unique. So the characters are often an exaggeration or a unique, uncommon, or even rare circumstance. While Maslow saw it being relatively rare for someone to achieve self-actualization, it happens for characters in fiction stories all the time.

Opposites React

Another way that stories can grab the attention of readers is being going against what is expected. Not everyone knows who Maslow is or what his hierarchy states, but it has really become a part of our culture. Let me give you an example: When we are announcing big news or having an important meeting, we often make sure there is food and refreshments. At work and at home, we strive to ensure our environment is safe and secure, and that comes before things like televisions. I did not research it, but I once read that Einstein wrote important papers while he was young, poor, and alone. So he was able to achieve and apply his creative genius, despite being in a circumstance where he had not met his lower level needs. Doesn’t that make a compelling story? In fact, the case can be made that many historical leaders, both malign and benevolent, cast off the traditional routes of meeting lower needs in order to reach for the upper level needs.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is a great example of the application of the hierarchy. This is set up right away as the lowest districts are concerned with basic survival, such as food, while those in the Capitol have such abundant food that they are able to focus on other things like politics and fashion. In fact, that is the very control that the government has over the people, that they hold the survival of the lower districts in their hands. The lower districts are stuck in the bottom of the pyramid, while the upper districts (and the President) are free to meet their esteem and creative needs.

Another facet of this in the Hunger Games is the fact that Katniss is asked to consider the top of the pyramid, while she is still trying to get he needs met at the bottom of the pyramid. She sees herself as just surviving the Hunger Games, while everyone else sees her as fighting for freedom. They ask her to join in the rebellion, forcing her to move to the top of the pyrmaid, when really she has been focused only on her survival needs up to that point.

So a good fictional story, driven by characters can work in concert with Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, or work in direct conflict with the theory. Either way, it can make for compelling and interesting characters that are fun to read about.

About This Feature: A Pint with the Professor is a (somewhat) bi-weekly feature where I apply the things I know about psychology, sociology and other related disciplines to fiction. I love thoughtful fiction, and I love hearing from authors and writers of speculative fiction when they think deeply about their fictional worlds and the people and cultures in those worlds. I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I enjoy putting them together. 

A Pint with the Professor: The Psychology of Villainy

The Importance of Fleshing out your Villain

People are complicated. Villains, like any other people, are usually complicated. One hallmark of a great villain, in my estimation, is one that I can empathize with. I may not agree with the decisions that they have made, but I can understand why they made those decisions. I am using the term villain and antagonist in this post, because I am really talking about villains for the most part. Not every antagonist needs to be a villain, though, but the same character traits may apply in varying degrees.

If a character is flat, and one-dimensional, then I will not have respect for that character. In most cases, it is important for the reader to have respect for the antagonist, or they will not be able to see the respect that the protagonist has for the antagonist. This is important, because the antagonist is usually the ultimate obstacle for the protagonist.

Empathy for the Antagonist

Justin Cronin, in The Passage is a great example of this. Throughout the novel, I was able to see a bit into the psyche of the nefarious characters, and I found myself sympathizing with people I would normally not want to be friends with. This too me is great fictional writing. These are characters that are the antagonists in the books, and I would never want to be friends with them in real life, but I can find myself understanding them, and even empathizing with them.

Make Your Villain a Personality

Many things can motivate the villain. One thing that the villain should not be, in my opinion, is a character that is not as well thought out as the protagonist, and by association, just the opposite of the antagonist. By this, I mean that the protagonist is good, and the antagonist is evil. The protagonist is messy, and the antagonist is tidy. The protagonist is a country boy, and the antagonist is a city dweller. Booooorrrrriiiiiiiing.

The antagonist should be multidimensional, meaning that they should not been seen solely in contrast with the protagonist. The antagonist should also be a complete personality in their own right. Certainly, there will be some opposition that includes polar opposites, but that should not be the sum extent of the character.

Some Thoughts on Villains

  • Unfiltered Villain – Freud’s theory is that people have three different aspects to their psyche. One of these aspects is the Id, which is our inner toddler. It has basic carnal desires, based on animalistic impulses toward sex and aggression. The Id is chaotic, unreasonable, and seeks immediate pleasure.  The Ego is the person’s self-identity that tries to moderate the impulses of the Id, and the realities of the real world. The SuperEgo develops to help control the person, and have them meet the expectations of society. This is something that develops as a young child starts to become aware of, and influenced by society in general. So the unfiltered villain is one that has a very active Id, but a relatively inactive SuperEgo and/or Ego.  They are driven by instincts of lust and aggression, with little, or no, filtering. A slight variation on this would be the extremely selfish villain, that is just looking out for him or herself.
  • Doin’ the Right Thing Villain– Hitler, and many other historical figures can be thought of in this category.  They may realize they are being looked upon unfavorably for now, but believe that once they have achieved their dream, then the world will come to understand and respect them more. This villain may have other mental health problems that have them seeing the world from a skewed vantage point. They may even see their actions of that of a parent, doing what is best for the child, even though the child may throw a tantrum.
  • Thrill Seeking Villain – Personality theorists have long theorized that there are some people that have a high threshold for pleasure. Something like playing a board game is fun, but running off to Mexico on a whim, or skydiving finally get their heart pumping a little. The Thrill Seeking villain is just trying to make life interesting. Competition and the thrill of edging out an opponent in a high-stakes game is just the ultimate thrill.
  • Turnabout Villain – “You done me wrong,” is more than just the start of a successful country & western song, it is the motivating factor behind this villain type. A villain who is mistreated and abused turns around to do the same to others. Some people that are exposed to violence become peacemakers, while others go with the flow and become violent in turn. With the proliferation of dark fantasy novels, this type of antagonist has shown up a lot in the form of a child who is abused, and grows up turns that abuse on others. This villain may carry around a lot of pain that they may or may not be aware of.
  • Mentally Ill Villain– This kind of villain has mental health problems.
    • The Sociopath – This character has no connection to those parts of the brain that would lead to empathy or connection and concern for others. Some studies have shown that our brains react in sympathy with what we see others going through. For this mental illness, however, this part of their brain just does not function. From an early age, however, they study others, and usually are quite good at “faking it.” That is why the neighbor on TV news always says, “he was such a nice, quiet man.” They can be quite charming, appear very empathetic, and have great concern for others. Is is all an act, however, as underneath it all, they have no real regard for others as anything more than a means to some end.
    • The Mood Disordered – A range of emotions is a normal part of human functioning. Mood disordered characters, however, have wild mood swings that they cannot control. They can become angry an violent at the drop of a hat, even depressed, irritated, and just as quickly snap out of it. This character is a slight exaggeration of what is usually found in real life, but the basis is in reality.
  • Revenge Villain – Perhaps similar to the turnabout villain, this antagonist is exacting revenge on those who he or she believes wronged him. Those who have wronged him or her can be specific people, a group of people, an entire class or society, or the whole world. The whole world you say? Yes, the villain can see the world as stacked against them, particularly if they have experienced a nasty set of life events. People often say “it was meant to be” or even “if God wills it,” so the idea is there for many people, but these villains see the cosmic influence as being negatively set against them.
  • Power Broker – Someone has to be in charge, and have their every whim attended to, and this type of villain says, “why not me?”
  • Resource Manager – This antagonist, particularly useful in more world-building speculative fiction stories, seeks to control a valuable resource or resources. Think of the spice in Dune, water in The Last Stormlord, and so forth. He (or she) who controls the __________, controls everything.

Ultimately I love a villain that is three-dimensional, and seems real. Hopefully that is enough to get you thinking. Maybe I will add more later, if some more comes to me. I would love to hear your comments on other villain types, or villains you love to hate in stories you have read or written. Happy writing!

A Pint with the Professor is a (somewhat) bi-weekly feature where I apply the things I know about psychology, sociology and other related disciplines to fiction. I love thoughtful fiction, and I love hearing from authors and writers of speculative fiction when they think deeply about their fictional worlds and the people and cultures in those worlds. I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I enjoy putting them together. 

Why I Don’t Write Every Day, But Should Write More

I have read the advice a million times (that may be a slight exaggeration), writers write, and they must do so every day. I look back at the last year, and I just have not met my writing goals. So I need to re-examine my goals, including how realistic they are, but also whether or not my writing habits are going to be sufficient to meet my goals.

The Argument for Writing Daily

I get the argument for writing every day. It take discipline to be a writer who makes a living by writing, because it is one of those jobs where no one is likely to notice if did not show up one day. So a writer needs to be disciplined and focused in order to get words on the page, make revisions, and generally just make a living. It takes it from being a hobby, to being a career. Since I have not met my writing goals over the last year, I certainly do get that I need to write more often. Writing daily also sets a writer up to be in the habit of writing. I know that is important as well. I can tell you that there have been some weeks where I probably had the time, but decided to do other things.

The Write Time

One thing that is tough for me, and that I see as a flaw in the argument is that writing is not my career. I work a full time job as a therapist, and a part-time job as a college instructor. I am a busy guy. I can tell you that writing is definitively a part of both of my jobs, so I do certainly get a lot of technical writing in. The writing as a therapist is often documentation that includes narratives and descriptions of sessions, so I get plenty of practice there as well. So I do get writing in, but let’s face it, it is very different from creative fiction writing. Since I am not yet making a living as a writer, I still need to make my living in the best way I can, which means that my current jobs come first. Not only do I enjoy them, but they put food on the table. I realize that if I spent more time on writing, it would eventually put food on the table as well, but I am not willing for my kids to starve in the meantime.

One hurdle for me then, is having the time to write fiction. I do think about my stories and my writing every day, but I do not always have the time to write. I do write at work, but it is not the same thing. So fitting in the writing is something I know I need to do more of.

Binge Writing

Joanna Penn discusses her writing style as being more of a binge process. Like me, she has a day job, and does not have the time or energy to write every day. She feels her creative energy builds until she finally finds some release when she has the time. I can really identify with this. She also says that she takes a lot of time to compose her work before she starts writing it. I can also identify with that.

I am not sure I can truly work as a binge writer, as she and other writers fully describe it. I do have those times in my life where I have more time than other times. That is just the truth of my reality. So in that regard, I can certainly identify with that binge writing. However, for me, it is more of a time issue than it is that my creative process is such that I need things to build and then release.

Still I Write

I can’t write fiction every day, I just do not have the time. If that is what it takes, then I would just have to face the fact that I cannot ever be a true author. I refuse to believe that. I am patient and I don’t mind my writing career taking years to develop. I think that patience and diligence is a perfectly acceptable way of breaking into writing, even if I cannot write every single day.

Having said that, I still know I need to write much more often. I am particularly interested in using technology to help make writing easier. I remember reading once that Brandon Sanderson wrote his breakout novel on a smartphone while riding the subway to and from work.  I have no idea how true it is, but it certainly sounds plausible. So I have decided that I need to come up with firmer goals, find more time to write, and test out and use technology tools to help me in doing so. I will try to share what technology I find that works for me in future blog posts, but be patient, because I am not one of those people who writes every day. And I am okay with that!

A Pint with the Professor: The Importance of Economy in Fiction

The Importance of Economy in Fiction

Economy is a social construct. That is something that only has relevance or importance because an entire group of people has made it so. Let’s look at money first. A dollar (or your local counterpart  only has worth because your entire society has given it some agreed upon value. It is really just paper though, with no intrinsic value of its own. It is only worth something because we all agree to let it be worth something. I can trade a dollar for anything at the dollar store, for one of my kids to do a chore, or for a candy bar at the grocery store. This is because we all have agreed to worth of a dollar. We may not have sat and hashed it out, but that is what money is.

As a further example, there are also many things money cannot buy. I cannot buy a car with a dollar. I cannot hire a babysitter for three hours for one dollar. I cannot purchase anything at the jewelry store for one dollar. So our shared agreements dictate both what a dollar is worth, and what it is not worth. Though money may seem mathematical, and certainly we can calculate interest rates and earnings, in the end it really has a worth in the first place because of our shared agreement of worth.

Many societies have a class or caste system based on economics as well. A caste system is very rigid, only rarely allowing movement between castes. A class system is more permeable  allowing movement. The Horatio Alger stories where someone who is born poor is able to claw their way to the top (or at least the middle) through hard work and dedication is an example of how this impacts fiction. Often times, different characters in books are empowered or challenged by the class or caste they are in.

Again, though, this is an agreed upon structuring by society. Your story might take place in a society where wealth of money is treasured above all else, and the class system is rigidly structured, allowing for little movement. Begging may be illegal, with folks born poor being oppressed, jailed, maybe even physically abused, exploited and perhaps even executed. Think about what this would take. Everyone in society would have to agree with this for one reason or another. Police would have to be empowered by their government to jail or abuse the poor. The rich would have to not see at as their responsibility to help the poor and unfortunate. The bystanders would have to stand by, and not intervene. The poor themselves would have to accept this treatment.

This may sound a bit crazy, but think of the Holocaust. Hitler only had power, because people gave it to him. In research experiments conducted later, it was found that people tended to follow authority, especially when the people were absolved of responsibility by that authority. So Hitler just needed to establish himself as an authority, and his insane ideas were taken as truth. Think of it this way, what if every single man woman and child in Germany had said, “no thanks.” That is an overly simplistic solution, but the idea behind it is that Hitler had the power to do what he did, only because a large number of people gave it to him.

This is important, because in fictional worlds, things other than money may have worth too. In a world or time where water is scarce, an economy would develop around water. People need water in order to survive. In a time or place where food is scarce, it might be treated differently. My kids, after eating a meal, often throw some food away that they did not eat. Some of my kids are picky and only like to eat certain things. How would this change if food were to become scarce? Food, water, shelter, warmth, and perhaps some other basic needs, such as sex and procreation might be worth less in a society of abundance, but worth quite a bit more in a society experiencing shortages.

Western society shows they value knowledge by paying people with college degrees more than people without them. We give those people honorary titles, such as “doctor.” Sometimes this gets complex when values intersect. In the United States, we show that we value families by giving people time often when they experience the birth of a child. We show that we value work as well, because we give far less time off than other countries do. So there is a value, enjoy your baby, but don’t take too long before you return to work, or we will stop paying you the money that you can trade for food, clothing and shelter for your family.

We can look at one more example. In the United States, people often complain that teachers get laid off and paid poorly, while athletes and actors make millions or billions of dollars. I can see some of you nodding your head. But why is that? Well, the government pays teachers, and we often vote in spending limits for the governments. Why? Well, there is only so much money to go around. People spend that money on tickets to sporting events, to see movies, and to buy the products that these people advertise. I am sure you are the person that never falls for that, but everyone thinks they are the person that never falls for that, but advertising brings in billions of dollars every year. It would not bring in billions, if it did not work. So what if in your fictional world, teachers were the celebrities? People bought products based on the advertisement and recommendation of teachers. Parents bought passes to get their children in with their favorite teachers, and the most popular teachers made millions as the wealthiest parents paid large sums of money to have their children instructed by such teachers. What would such a society look like? What events would get a society of people in such a condition?

Other things may have an economy too. The value of art, performance, a particular vocation, a powerful resource, knowledge, human contact, children and family, and many other things can vary greatly in your fictional world. Even the value of race, gender, or other psychical features can have some value. They can all have an integral part in your world.

A Pint with the Professor is a (somewhat) weekly feature where I apply the things I know about psychology, sociology and other related disciplines to fiction. I love thoughtful fiction, and I love hearing from authors and writers of speculative fiction when they think deeply about their fictional worlds and the people and cultures in those worlds. I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I enjoy putting them together. 

A Pint with the Professor: Intelligent Fiction

Intelligent Fiction

I enjoy speculative fiction stories of many types. One thing that helps me to enjoy a story the most is that it is written intelligently. If the inhabitants live in a time and place where water is scarce, I expect them to behave in such a way as to conserve and treasure water. If a person flagrantly wastes water, then I would expect for there to be some reasonable explanation as to why that is. I most enjoy a social structure and social mannerisms that make sense for that fictitious culture.

Stay with me on this one, but I love comedians because they are able to notice those things in everyday life that are much more funny than I gave them credit for when they happened to me. I am very amazed with how a comedian can take something so ordinary that I would have passed it over, and they can find the comedy in it.

Similarly, I love fiction writers who notice things about people, and they bring that into their characters. A co-worker recently asked me if I wanted an extra taco she ordered but was not going to eat. When I indicated I was not sure, she said then she might ask the only other male on the team if he would want it.

Researchers in social psychology have found that people are usually not aware of why they do many of the things that they do. They can often come up with a justification for it, but the justification usually is not derived until after the person has already exhibited the social behavior in question. People generally want to believe the best of themselves, it is a natural human tendency noticed since even the very first analysts began working with patients regarding their mental health. Therefore, even though we can often come up with a reason for why we did something that we did, that does not mean we understood the reason at the time.

Did you notice in the example above that the co-worker specifically went to the male staff to ask if they wanted food? Noticing things like that is one of the first steps to becoming an intelligent writer, in my opinion. Curiosity about why this is so, is also an important characteristic.

Psychologists often derive explanations for behaviors by looking at the utility of those behaviors. Evolutionary psychology is particularly useful when examining problems of this nature. Similar to general evolutionary theory, this theory posits that humans often behave in certain ways because there is some adaptive utility in doing so. Some might suggest that men are fed first because historically, they have been the protectors of the home. Therefore it would be important for family survival to have the males well fed and healthy. It could be because the male body structure tends to be larger, so we tend to need more calories just to keep our bodies going. It could just be an expression of patriarchy in our society. It might even be true that there is more than one reason.

If we were to sit and brainstorm together over a pint (or four), we could probably come up with many explanations to explain why men get the extra taco. As speculative fiction writers, however, we get to create those little social rules and come up with our own explanations. Intelligent observation can lead to intelligent writing, and to a speculative fiction world that seems plausible and immersive.

Heirs to Mars by Joseph Robert Lewis is a great example of an intelligent speculative fiction world. The story takes place in a future fictional world on an inhabited Mars. In this book, cloners are able to save the minds of people that they believe are worthy, and to place those minds in android bodies that mimic the people they are patterned after, once the person dies. The story in the book is largely the clash in cultures as human society attempts to catch up with the technology. I do recommend the book, I quite enjoyed it.

A Pint with the Professor is a (somewhat) weekly feature where I apply the things I know about psychology, sociology and other related disciplines to fiction. I love thoughtful fiction, and I love hearing from authors and writers of speculative fiction when they think deeply about their fictional worlds and the people and cultures in those worlds. I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I enjoy putting them together.