Flashback post: What maturity means

If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you! This was originally posted on November 26th, 2012.

There’s a problem with the way we categorize things — a problem I’ve struggled with for a long time now. Movies, books and video games are called “mature” when they have violence and/or sex in them. The horrors of war and the depths of sexuality are clearly not appropriate for small children, therefore they’re meant for adults.

Simple enough. But this distinction is often misconstrued — so that some people think if a work doesn’t have inappropriate content for children, it can’t possibly be meant for adults. If a work doesn’t have R-rated violence and sex, it must be boring Teletubby stuff.

There are a lot of factors at work here. Our marketing-driven world wants there to be clear lines between children’s entertainment and adult entertainment. And we have increasingly short attention spans in this day and age, so the public probably wants punchier content. And American culture strongly associates some forms (e.g. non-human characters, or colourful animated art) with children’s entertainment. Media is expected to fit into categories — and one of those category divisions is mature/not mature.

But what is maturity, really? The word has many connotations. It might mean mere physical maturity — so a pubescent 13-year-old could be called mature. Moreso if he plays “mature” video games about shooting Nazi soldiers, or watches a “mature” movie with a sex scene in it. That kid is probably fixated on violence and boobies at least partly because he’s grasping at adult concepts, thinking that by association, he’ll be less child-like.

C.S. Lewis had a thought on this subject that I’ve always liked:

“Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

He didn’t use the word “mature”, but I think his point is the same. Insisting on some arbitrary type of “adult” content is the most childish thing a person can do. A truly mature person recognises that they like what they like and no one else gets a say in it. I mean, an adult can watch Barney the dinosaur if they damn well please. The show wasn’t intended for anyone over the age of 5, but if a 40-year-old sees something pleasing about the show, why not watch? Maybe they find it relaxing after a stressful day of work.

Because mature people are also discerning. They’re the quietly confident ones with taste and insight. They’re the polar opposite of the “mature” things that would traumatize a child. Revelling in fighting and sex isn’t necessarily a mature thing to do. Heck, it’s not even a psychologically balanced thing to do. I think that’s the real measure of an adult: the ability to look past flashy novelty and appreciate the nuances of things.

Just look at Harry Potter. The series was a surprise hit with adults, probably because that story of a destined boy had a lot of interesting detail that a kid would take for granted. The story has worldbuilding and social commentary. There were racial tensions, and elaborate cover-ups, and characters struggling to do the right thing. Just because the main character was a kid didn’t mean the saga lacked maturity. But some people are still ashamed to be seen reading those “kids’ books” in public. Part of the problem is probably the stylized cover art.

This isn't photorealistic at all! Where are the explosions?

This isn’t photorealistic at all! Where are the explosions?

Another part is probably the recent trendiness of dark, grim fantasy — under the belief that happiness, justice and noble ideals are somehow less suitable for adults than murder and rape. The people who think Harry Potter is exclusively for children probably don’t have a problem reading Game of Thrones on the bus.

This maturity connundrum is something I encounter a lot with my writing career. I have non-human characters full of peaceful intent, so many people draw a conclusion of, “Oh, so it’s a children’s book full of cute little woodland animals?” There isn’t a lot of precident for what I do, so I navigate a minefield of cultural assumptions. As for the covers, I’m careful not to include any of my Aligare characters in the cover designs. If I made the cover look edgy enough to counter the “cute animal people”, I’d contradict the peace, understanding and actual maturity I’m trying to convey inside that cover.

Pictured: Peregrine of Ruelle as played by Bruce Willis, in this summer's intense action thriller.

Pictured: Peregrine of Ruelle as played by Bruce Willis, in this summer’s intense action thriller.

Fortunately, every parent I’ve met has been wise enough to ask me if my work is actually appropriate for their elementary-school-aged kids. Not really, I tell them. Remedy doesn’t have gory battles or overt sex, but it does have some pretty graphic medical drama. Watching a character struggle to breathe isn’t glamorous or pleasant.

More importantly, I think a certain amount of maturity is needed to understand Peregrine, an older man with long-term responsibilities and a moral quandary. I can’t imagine that a kid under a certain age could grasp why Peregrine is unhappy at the beginning of the story, or why he tries to push his best friend Tillian out of his life. To empathize with people very different from oneself, maturity is needed. I’ve had a report that one particularly advanced 12-year-old reader enjoyed Remedy — which is cool, I guess, but I still found it surprising.

So I guess what I’m saying is that maturity is simple, and yet it’s not. And an actual mature adult should be able to handle that.

Related articles:

My favourite dialogue from Render (A story of Aligare) (heidicvlach.com)

Moodiness: A part of real life, not fiction (heidicvlach.com)

Trying to write colourfully (heidicvlach.com)


Flashback post: Why I built a peaceful fantasy world

If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you! This was originally posted on August 10th, 2012.

For those who haven’t read my stories of Aligare, I’ll tell you that they’re very positive. Characters genuinely mean well and try to do right by others. Spoiler: no one turns out to be the scheming villain, ever.

Of course, I caught a lot of flack for this when I was a younger writer seeking feedback. Everyone is too nice, the critiquers said! Nothing happens! Lack of conflict is boring! Why don’t they attack each other?

Well, for starters, story conflict isn’t synonymous with characters arguing or lunging at each other’s throats. It’s easy to forget that when we’re used to fantasy stories full of battles, enemies, or at least petty squabbling between the main characters. But the blocking figure in a story can also be something amorphous like natural forces, or one’s own personality flaws, or bad luck. Just because there can be an evil villain in a story doesn’t mean it’s a strict necessity.

helpingclimber

This image tells plenty of story. It doesn’t need an villainous mountain climber trying to murder the other two with an axe.

 

I’m using fantasy to question humanity. Which isn’t a new thing. Plenty of authors tackle big issues with the help of dragons/magic/sword fights/whatever. But I don’t want my characters to fight each other for freedom or rights. That seems like a blindingly obvious parallel to humanity. I’m trying something a bit less direct. I’m using a world where the people live under thatch roofs, but have far outpaced first-world humans in social justice.

When I think of humans as an overall species, I wince and hope that extraterrestrial life doesn’t drop by until we’ve stopped being so stupid. We have a long history of violence, cruelty and bigotry to fellow humans (never mind other living things). Something as minor as skin colour or gender can be a gigantic deal that causes humans to hate, fear, and censor each other. Sure, we’ve done some good things. We’ve built cool gadgets and composed a few masterpieces. And many of us are aware that our society has large-scale problems. But it still seems absurd, to me, that we put so much emphasis on our status as “superior” Earth species when we have so far yet to go.

So I didn’t want to put humans in my Aligare world. Why bother sifting through all the historical baggage and prejudices our species carries? I could just create someone new, some variety of people more open-minded than we are. That sounded like a much more appealing world to immerse my brain in for hundreds of writing hours — and, hey, surely some readers will enjoy immersing their brains in it, too. That’s where the three Aligare species got their start.

The Aligare races aren’t there just to be random animal people. They’re meant to make the reader think. If these dragons, insects and weasels can accept each other and work genuinely together, why can’t humans? We evolved as social creatures living in cooperative tribes, but we’ve somehow come to accept aggression and treachery as a normal — even glamorous — part of life. Why don’t we have peace? Is it even possible for humans to have lasting peace? That’s one possible point I hope my readers will consider.

I met a local lady who read Remedy and liked its positivity. She said she was bracing herself for one of the characters to be the scheming bad guy, and she was pleasantly surprised that that never happened. This is exactly the reaction I hope for. I make the Aligare world a positive place full of nice people because, well, why wouldn’t we want to visit a place like that?

I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that I don’t care for the gritty, dark type of fantasy that’s currently popular. I just don’t think constant suffering is realistic. Constant happiness isn’t realistic, either. But a positive attitude? That can endure anything if we let it.


What “fantasy” means: Fiction genres and how we search through them

I’m often bothered by the fact that fantasy is a term for a whole genre. Sci-fi applies, too. These two terms have basically the same issue, so I won’t quibble over science fantasy or any other gradient of speculative content.

When you pick up a mystery novel, you can expect there to be clues to put together and a bad guy to catch, probably with a good dose of suspense involved. If the book is a thriller, it’s similar to a mystery but with more action and peril. These genre terms not only describe the general plot of the story, but suggest the mood and the type of content the reader can expect. If you dislike tough guy characters, chase scenes and life-or-death tension, you quickly learn that the typical thriller novel doesn’t appeal to you.

carexplosion

Fantasy, on the other hand? That classification is given to any story with a speculative element. The typical fantasy novel has a spiritual, mystical vibe and some sort of magical force beyond our understanding. Unlike science fiction, fantasy doesn’t need to explain itself (or imply that it can explain itself). But that’s about all we can demand of the fantasy label. No guarantees on how much magic there’ll be — never mind what the characters will be doing, thinking, feeling or fighting.

So how weird is it that we can say a book is “a fantasy novel” and act like that describes anything? If Book A is a tender love story between a medieval princess and a werewombat, and Book B is a thrill-a-minute saga of competitive dragon-racing in a steampunky version of the 1980’s, those books could easily end up on a bookstore shelf right beside each other. Because they both have fantastic elements — and that apparently overrides all the other story elements.

Sure, some people think fantasy should be kept strictly separate from non-fantasy. We’ve all heard of snobby literary critics who seem to hate using their imaginations. But does the fantasy designation really trump everything else about a story? Its pacing, its themes, its soul? Sometimes the fantasty elements are only there to evoke a certain flavour of drama, or to pose a philosophical question.

2560x1600-princess-amp-dragon

I think about this every time I need to describe my writing or write a synopsis. Because of Lord of the Rings and other iconic quest stories, fantasy is often considered synonymous with adventure, sword fights and evil wizards who must be stopped. J. R. R. Tolkien is well respected for his intricate constructions of language and culture, but Frodo’s heroic journey with the One Ring is the part of the story most people remember. Most of our familiar fantasy stories are hero’s journeys with high stakes. My stories of Aligare, on the other hand, are less showy. They’re about character growth and existential questions, and the nature of being a person. If you open Remedy up hoping that it’s an action-adventure quest to find a plague cure, then, well, yeah. You might be disappointed.

But grouping books exclusively by content doesn’t work, either. I’ve heard of people sifting through the Adventure section to find Conan the Barbarian books, back before sci-fi/fantasy books were deemed worthy of their own section(s) in bookstores. It must have taken a lot of browsing to find the sword-and-sorcery stories among the more contemporary works. Saying that adventure trumps fantasy isn’t a more accurate way to classify content, and it’s not any more fair to the variety of books out there.

I think the tag system is the best way to go about it. Label every book with a bunch of descriptors, then let the reader decide how specific they want to be. If one reader wants a highly political, action-adventure fantasy with dragon-riders, they can search for books that have all (or most) of those tags. If another reader just likes dragons and is open to all other factors, they can search for “dragons” and see what shows up. It works no matter which story elements you consider most important.

Tagging works very well when you’re trying to filter an electronic environment, but it’s problematic for paper novels. Those still need to sit on shelves in some order, any order: it’s an unfortunate consequence of having a three-dimensional physical form within space and time. This is why searching through a million ebooks can be much easier than searching through a thousand hardbacks on shelves.

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But there’s nothing to say that we can’t use an electronic tag database to look up a book in a bookstore. It’d be a bit jarring at first to remove the big genre signs from bookstores, but bookstore employees could show you how to search a database in the same way librarians teach people to use the Dewey Decimal System. I think it would be great if more booksellers took on the approach of tagging paper books, regardless of whether the storefront is physical or virtual. It would definitely help people navigate the ever-increasing selection of books out there. It might even help SF/F stories become truly accepted as meaningful literature, when fantasy isn’t treated like a one-quest-fits-all classification.

Although, tagging does raise the question of how specific we should be. Should each book have five defining tags, or fifty? If a griffon is offhandedly mentioned on page 167, should griffon be tagged? Will we all have to agree on a spelling variation: “griffon”, “griffin”, or “gryphon”? There’ll always be room for debate in a field as broad as fiction. Organization might be a fantasy in itself.


The smoot and other weird ways to measure

This post originally appeared on my Blogger account. So you might find it familiar!

 

There’s a unit of measurement called the smoot. You might find it while telling Google Earth which units to give distances in. The smoot sits in a pull-down menu along with more familiar measures like miles and kilometers — which is interesting because what the heck is a smoot? (Other than a reason to bicker with your autocorrect software. No, TextEdit, I don’t mean “smote”.)

According to Wikipedia, a smoot is equivalent to 5 feet, 7 inches or 1.7 metres. Which is the height of Mr. Oliver R. Smoot, a graduate of Masschusetts Institute of Technology. He and his fraternity buddies invented the unit of measurement as part of a prank. Over 50 years later, their painted smoot markings on Harvard Bridge are still used as points of reference by locals.

measuringsmoot

smootdedication

When Google offers measurements in smoots, it’s not really for practical purposes. It’s an obscure joke. The smoot was never intended to be taken seriously and people seem to find the whole thing amusing. Could that be that why this measurement endured far longer than most frat stunts?

Maybe it’s like how the foot has endured as a unit of measurement. Using a man’s foot as a unit of measure must have been practical in ancient times, but it’s a bit silly to hold things against the nearest adult man’s feet nowadays. Why are feet an acceptable form of measurement while smoots are a weird joke? Neither of them are more absurd than using a metre, which is defined as 1) one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole, or 2) the distance light travels through a vacuum in 1/299 792 458 of a second. How the heck am I supposed to measure a piece of string against THAT?

But then again, it’s not like I could have Mr. Smoot follow me around in case I need to measure things. I doubt it’s possible for a standard of measurement to be immediately practical and relevant in all situations. We’re better off picking some arbitrary length, making metresticks/yardsticks to measure with, and calling it a day.

For my Aligare world, I have the characters measure short distances in “knuckles”, which is the distance between two of a person’s knuckles.

knucklewidth

Like so.

It’s about 1 inch/2.5 cm. Hand width is similar between korvi and aemets. Ferrin have small paw-hands so for the sake of clarity, they use the span of three knuckle bones, not two. Everyone knows that a knuckle is a very rough measurement, so they’ll specify whether this knuckle of mint stems is generous or skimpy.

Other measurement units are the “hank”, the average height of a cotton plant (about 5 feet/1.5 metres). And a “stone’s throw” which is, well, anywhere between 2 metres and 20. Without a government or a monarchy to impose specifics, everything is taken with a grain of salt. Or five grains. Sometimes.

Units of measurement exist so that people have some constants to relate to. Humans have a lot of ways to measure, I’m guessing because we’re an awfully competitive and curious bunch — but any sentient being needs a way to talk about length and distance, even if those units aren’t precise. Each unit has its intended audience, and we can convert measures to fill in the gaps. As the smoot proves, a unit of measure doesn’t need to be universal to be useful; that’s the long and short of it.


Scars: fictional meaning vs. real mundanity

Scars have a way of seeming significant. Especially in fiction, where pointing out a character’s scars can imply a lot about them — that they’ve been crushingly defeated at some point, or that they live a dangerous life.

But the funny thing is that humans can get scars without doing anything dramatic at all. I burn myself at work on a fairly regular basis and, really, nothing interesting happens to cause it. I just pick up a plate and have a hot ramekin slide into my knuckle, or maybe I’m sprinkling cheese on pasta and I accidentally touch the heat lamp. Ordinary job hazards for a food service worker to get a little brown scar from. It’s not like I’m fighting anything or rescuing anyone (unless you consider waitressing a fight against hunger, or a rescue of restaurant patrons from low blood sugar).

And yet, scars are notable when a fictional character has them. Maybe it’s from because of the simple fact that scars indicate action. You don’t usually get a scar from sitting on the couch, after all: scars come about because the bearer was doing something or involved in something. There’s always a story there, even if it’s a relatively mundane story like falling out of a tree as a kid, or trying to cut vegetables for dinner. If the scar came from a medical procedure, then something bad happened that required a doctor and stitches. That scar might not make a grand statement about the person’s lifestyle — but it still has something to say.

Humans have mixed reactions to scars. We instinctively think of clear, unblemished skin as a sign of health, so scars are often considered unappealing. Fictional villains might have an ugly scar to indicate that they’re an unsavoury person. However, if scars are cast in the right light, they can can be an indication of a brave, strong warrior who can endure pain. Definitely an appealing trait in a hero or a mate.

In Remedy, I knew Peregrine would have some scars. For one thing, he’s spent his life mining with a hammer and chisel. Korvi have a tougher, more leathery skin than humans, but it would still be strange if Peregrine had never gotten a mark on him after 80 years of such physical work. He was also bitten by a basilisk at some point, while travelling alone. But he takes stuff like that about as seriously as I take burning myself at work:

Peregrine may have stumbled upon the occasional basilisk, but those beasts turned cowardly as soon as a fellow spat some smoke; a second tooth puncture scar on his leg wouldn’t be the end of him. The Skyfield plains held no trouble Peregrine couldn’t handle alone – oh, this was true and he knew it.
-Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 17

Peregrine’s scars aren’t there to be remarkable; they’re there as evidence of a life with an ordinary amount of hardship in it. In fact, I sometimes forget they’re there, just like Peregrine surely does.

When a scar triggers both positive and negative reactions in our minds, it’s easy fuel for our imaginations. That means that it’s easy for fiction to blow scars out of proportion and assume that they’re always a big deal. I can’t think of many characters who have minor-point-of-interest scars. And hey, why should real people have a monopoly on that? I think fictional characters should trip once in a while and need a few stitches, just like the rest of us.


“Creative” should mean something

As a kid, I went to a lot of summer-camp-type programs. Not all of them were actually camps in the woods: some were just arts and crafts projects hosted by the local college. But all of these programs were meant to ensure that only children like myself didn’t spend the whole summer in a lightless basement playing video games.

One of these college-hosted programs had me in a classroom with about 20 other kids. We were given a challenge: using an allotted supply of tape, paper, drinking straws and paper clips, make a construct that would allow a light bulb to survive an 8-foot drop. It was a standby activity that got kids thinking and building for an hour.

While fiddling with the paper and straws, my assigned group didn’t seem to have any good ideas springing forth. Or any ideas at all, really. So I threw out, “Hey, what if we wrap the paper around the lightbulb base like this? So it makes a cone, and the open end of the cone acts like landing gear.” Everyone agreed, in the blasé but curious way of kids who don’t know what to do. I basically led the exercise and my lightbulb construct ended up looking like a prototype lunar lander. The paper cone bristled with drinking straws — so the cone wouldn’t fall over, you see.

The other groups of kids made the simple models frequently seen in this exercise: crumpled balls of padding encasing the lightbulb, or landing pads to be put on the floor under the bare, falling bulb. Most of the day’s constructs successfully protected the light bulb. A few failed and were followed by broken glass cleanup. My lunar lander performed perfectly, landing on its open cone end with a quiet click and holding the light bulb se.

Afterward, the program leaders stood in front of the chalkboard and graded each construct. We got scores out of 20 points in several impressive-sounding categories. This was a farce, of course — it’s not like a casual summer program is going to give a child a failing grade in arts and crafts. At the time, I was just waiting excitedly to see if my clearly awesome construct would get the best score. Getting the highest score would mean that I won, right? Or at least that I was good at doing assigned things in a cool way.

In the category of Creativity, most of the other kids got score of 16 or 17. Drawing a design on your crumpled ball of paper was enough to get a score or 19 or 20 and be called very creative. So when a program leader arrived at my lunar lander and held his chalk near the Creative category, he hesitated. His face scrunched up with thought, and he hemmed and hawed something about how he had never seen a design anything like what my group did. Reluctantly, he wrote “21/20”.

And somehow, that was the most disappointing grade my teacher’s-pet self had ever received. 21 out of 20? What the heck was this noise? If actual innovation broke the grading parameters, then the grade was meaningless. I could sense that even though I just wanted to be the smartest kid in the room. The program leaders had watered down the term “creative” until it meant little more than “I acknowledge that you made something”.

Nowadays, I think of that experience when I’m reading reviews of mainstream fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a clichéd story about a destined farmboy, but I wince when I see those types of stories called “creative”. Like there’s something exceptional about redoing a well-worn trope. Sure, it’s creative in the strict sense that magical quests don’t happen in our real world and there aren’t any dragons in our skies. But if we call a hero youth with a sword “creative”, what will we do when a project comes along that shatters all our expectations? Give it 21 out of 20? Or 500 out of 20, because that’s about as meaningful?

I think it’s important to say what we mean, and keep our expectations high. Book grading is never anything but subjective, I know. People who are dazzled by the special farmboy probably just haven’t read much fantasy, so to them, it seems like a truly creative spin on an adventure quest story. But I expect a “creative” story to break rules or try something really out there, not just put a bit of window dressing on something familiar. Personally, I write about bird-dragons on peaceful quests for personal truth and I often feel like I’m not reaching high enough. There are new models to try, if we’re willing to wander away from the more obvious choices. And they might just work exceptionally well.

Our modern mainstream media shows a strong preference for safe ideas. Things that have been done before and can be doodled on to make them look new. Just look at all the franchise reboots and sequels available for us to read and watch. Creativity is something I don’t think we can get enough of: we should be building strange constructs whenever possible, just to see if they work. And as a consumer of ideas, I’ll always be expecting 20/20 creativity to surprise me.