Once again, I’m giving the floor to Claudie Arseneault! You might remember her from the Wings of Renewal blog tour, where she talked about solarpunk science fiction. Today, she’s here to share some gender-based worldbuilding and some important ideas about rejecting stale norms, from her upcoming fantasy novel City of Strife. Take it away, Claudie!
Diversifying Your Worldbuilding : How I Integrated Nonbinary Identities into Isandor’s Pantheon
A disclaimer: This is not a How To post. As a cis person, it’s not my place to say how one should or shouldn’t build to include nonbinary representation. But I wanted to share a look into how I approached worldbuilding to avoid excluding nonbinary identities from the world’s history.
When I first set myself to deepening the worldbuilding around Isandor, I knew I wanted flexibility to invent and create as I went, without the constraints of a) having established too much, or b) a rigid structure. This was particularly true of pantheons, as I’ve always loved polytheist fantasy worlds where each god had a handful of domains and no more. So I started building with the following structure: six core deities (Water, Air, Earth, Fire, Creation, Destruction), and demigods (mortals who, through remarkable connection to their domain, ascended to a divine status).
As I went to design each more precisely, however, I quickly fell into old patterns.
Should the Water deity be a man or a woman? What of each race? How can I avoid reproducing stereotypes of high fantasy worldbuilding?
Well, for one, I could fling “man or woman” into a fiery dumpster and never think like that again.
I have always felt like how you build your pantheon reflects how your universe exists—what is its “natural” state, and if gender is a social construct, it makes little sense for divine beings who existed at the dawn of times to start with one.
So, Decision #1 : all six core deities are essentially agender. There are gendered representation and titles for them, as varying cultures have focused on different aspects of each of the six core deities and their vision of them evolved through time. This is why Myrians refer to Keroth as ‘Firelord’ and imagine them as a thin white man, despite the much more common depiction of them as large and black. Decision #2: all of these six core deities use singular they/them, no matter the depiction.
This normalized the use of gender-neutral pronouns in my universe, or at least opened the door to it. I worried about dismissing neopronouns but quickly realized I had the rest of the pantheon to build, and demigods would all have been actual people before.
Decision #3: include nonbinary demigods with neopronouns to legitimize those, too. The first of those became Ren, the Luck deity, who comes up a lot in City of Strife (one of my central character is xir priest). Ren is bigender; xir gender switches between man and woman, and xe is known to have described it like the flip of a coin–you never know which you’ll get, or how long a stretch can last.
Beyond Ren, I knew I wanted to keep race-related deities. An elf watching over elves. A halfling for those. But since I didn’t want to build a pantheon for each race, I decided these demigods would be the very first leaders of their race. Thus, when the elves were created (elves of all skin colour), their leader was Alluma, the Elven Sheppard, and since this is the beginning and genders weren’t a thing, Alluma doesn’t have one either. The point here is that when I decided there would be no gender binary at the dawn of time, I naturally created space for nonbinary people. It’s even the most logical step!
I didn’t want my only nonbinary representation to be deities, though, so Decision #4: City of Strife also features a nonbinary character. They have a minor role in the first book, but the two other novels give them more pagetime.
Finally, Decision #5: there are at least two cultures in the world that have a completely different relationship to gender than male/female binary. They’re not really in Isandor except for brief mentions for research (I need to do more) and practicality (Isandor happens all in the same city and it’s FAR from them) but it seems to me that, if everyone started from the same no-gender ground, there was no way they’d all construct the same dichotomy–not unless it was imposed (lo and behold, the regions who have it all fell under one of two Empires through history).
It’s easy to worldbuild based on what we’ve always known and read, but it’s such a wasted opportunity to do better. Inclusivity isn’t just a single character. It goes deeper than that, to the very root of your universe.
This exercise taught me to question my worldbuilding reflexes. We live in a racist, homophobic, cissexist (to name a few) world. We’ve all read racist, homophobic, and cissexist fiction. The universes we create are, by consequence, racist, homophobic, and cissexist. Undoing that takes time and energy, it requires long reflexion, a hard look at yourself, and constant listening to the communities you’re trying to do right by.
And even then… Chances are I missed something. I’m still learning–I will always be learning. But building the structure of Isandor’s pantheon and diverging from the binary was fun. Breaking apart cissexist tropes opened great possibilities while still keeping some aspects of old-school high fantasy I wanted, and I hope the end result is a universe where my nonbinary readers will feel not only acknowledged, but welcomed.
If you want to check out the novel itself, it comes out this February 22nd! (LINK) And if you want more authors who do great things reinvestigating certain worldbuilding tropes, I suggest B.R. Sanders. Their novel, Ariah, contains rich cultures with various forms of family structures and approaches to romance and sex.
Feel free to share any cool ways you broke a problematic trope in your worldbuilding, too!
Claudie Arseneault is an asexual and aromantic-spectrum writer hailing from the very-French Québec City. Her long studies in biochemistry and immunology often sneak back into her science-fiction, and her love for sprawling casts invariably turns her novels into multi-storylined wonders. The most recent, City of Strife, comes out on February 22, 2017! Claudie is a founding member of The Kraken Collective and is well-known for her involvement in solarpunk, her database of aro and ace characters in speculative fiction, and her unending love of squids. Find out more on her website!
I grew up hearing the expression, “Blood is thicker than water”. Meaning that a person’s family is more important — and more reliable — than their friends.
But the funny thing about idioms is that they change over time. A quick look at Wikipedia shows various ideas of blood thickness. There’s an interesting Arabian idea of blood (as in the blood-brother you’ve sworn loyalty to) being thicker than milk (suckled together).
But the alternate version I heard first was this one: “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”. Which means the polar opposite of “blood is thicker than water”: it means that the relationships we choose are stronger than the relationships we’re just born into. I found it striking that the expression changed meaning completely — but hey, that’s the power of language. Phrasing matters.
More than that, I think that “blood of the covenant” idea is the more truthful one. Some people are born into abusive families who hurt them and stifle their potential. Some people are born into families they don’t hate, but also don’t really get along with. Ironically, relatives don’t always relate to each other. It’s great if you truly connect with your blood family, but if you don’t, there’s no good reason to prioritize DNA connections over the found friends who actually love and support you.
My stance shows clearly in the Stories of Aligare. In that world, a family is whoever you care about. Homes can be a patchwork of different people and connections. It’s fine if they’re not biologically related to you — or even if they’re a dramatically different species. Peregrine the korvi loves his adopted ferrin friends more than anything. Tenver the ferrin considers Constezza the korvi to be his mother. And as the years go by, Rue the aemet rearranges her definition of her nuclear family:
“I’m glad [Feor the dog] went to you,” Mother admitted. She worked an arm behind Rue, to put a love-soft hand on Rue’s shell. “You two match. Two is a half-measure of luck, you know.”
“You match?” Denelend hopped closer, tipping his head. “Oh, your names? Aemet names mean things, don’t they?”
“They do. Come on, Denelend — have a rest, dear. We’ve got plenty of light.”
Mother paused until Denelend was seated by her booted feet, patiently enduring while Feor sniffed him over. It was growing less strange to think of this gathering as the Tennel family — one with found friends woven in, a ferrin and a korvi and now a dog, too.
—Render (A story of Aligare), Chapter 7
I find that sort of attitude fulfilling to write about — as opposed to the more common fantasy ideas of family lineage and bastard children, which seem to breed nastiness and judgement. I think we can all use as many covenants as we can get.
Lately, science has been uncovering more evidence of how humans domesticated dogs. It’s been an interesting few thousand years of evolution! From this article:
This reflects a more complicated history than the popular story that early farmers adopted a few docile, friendly wolves that later became our beloved, modern-day companions. Instead, the earliest dogs may have first lived among hunter-gatherer societies and adapted to agricultural life later.
“Dog domestication is more complex than we originally thought,” said John Novembre, associate professor in the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Chicago and a senior author on the study. “In this analysis we didn’t see clear evidence in favor of a multi-regional model, or a single origin from one of the living wolves that we sampled. It makes the field of dog domestication very intriguing going forward.”
Even before humans started developing highly specialized breeds of dog, there were changes being made on the social and genetic levels. Also, here’s another article suggesting that wolf domestication made use of the wolves’ ability to watch humans and learn from them, even before the two species had friendly relations.
What I find interesting about this is the way humans have pretty much forgotten how we first made allegiance with dogs. We need to go back and examine our own remains to remember. Most of the insights require modern science, since we didn’t have genetic theory in our early farming days. But still — we didn’t really pass down any lore about how wolves were tamed and developed into domestic dogs. As far as we’re concerned, man and dog are (usually) allies because we just are. “Man’s best friend”, we say.
But during our animal domesticating pre-history, a lot must have happened! Imagine all our ancestors adjusting their perception of wolves, and deciding to allow those dangerous wild animals into their lives. There must have been so many individual humans who took chances on wolf-dogs and found it a surprisingly workable arrangement. I find it weird that we don’t have a lot of stories about humans and dogs becoming friends. Maybe humans just liked the fact that dogs are our companions now — so much that they neglected to immortalize how we made dogs our companions. (Then again, human history has a lot of documentation gaps, so this particular gap might not mean anything at all.)
There’s even been a discovery of a human buried with what appears to be a pet fox — and the grave dates back to well before dogs were domesticated. Foxes are different from wolves and dogs, and that particular human and fox seemed to be an isolated instance of one person who had a random wild animal friend. But still, that human and fox are a small fragment of a greater cultural story of pet animals. A story we used to know, but we don’t anymore — not yet.
Because I find this subject interesting, I made dogs part of my Aligare world. The domestication process is directly talked about in Render (A story of Aligare). Hear more about the Aligare world’s relationship with dogs in these previous posts:
Aligare’s korvi are a dragon-like folk, a combination of reptile and bird traits. As one would expect, their young hatch from eggs.
And once the hatchling has cracked their way into the world, what happens to the eggshell? It’s treated as a keepsake. The event of an egg hatching isn’t thought of as birth, exactly — more of a transition. The infant inside the egg has been breathing and existing for who knows how long and it’s just now taken a step of development. The shell pieces are cleaned and carefully stored by the hatchling’s family, like human parents might keep their child’s lost baby teeth.
Then, once the hatchling fledges and decides to leave home, they receive their eggshells as a warm parting gift. It’s a coming-of-age gesture, giving the young korvi responsibility for that fragile remnant. Although the parents keep the eggshells as intact as the hatchling left them, once the young adult korvi takes their eggshells they’re free to do what they want. Some continue preserving the shell pieces’ shapes, and some choose to break the eggshells into smaller pieces for easier storage. Either way, the majority of korvi have a generously cloth-wrapped bundle somewhere in their home, which is rarely unpacked and always handled with care. A rare few don’t like that idea. They make their eggshells into something more functional or decorative: maybe a painted bowl to hold trinkets, or a string of beads they’re always wearing.
Korvi traditionally cremate their dead, and the person’s eggshells are burned with them. Eggshells are there when a korvi sets out in life, and the korvi takes their eggshells with them when they depart.
◦ My favourite dialogue from Render (A story of Aligare) (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Korvi festival ties (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Aligare wildlife: the basilisk (heidicvlach.com)
The other day, I was working a dinner shift at my restaurant day job. One of my tables was a group of immigrant folks celebrating their first anniversary living in Canada. And as I cleared their dinner plates, I asked what I always ask customers: “Would you like anything else? Coffee or tea?” These folks paused and, giving me an odd look, asked why they’d want coffee at nearly 10 PM.
Which is a good point. I mean, offering a stimulating, caffienated drink at nighttime? Am I trying to keep them awake all night? I winced chucklingly and said, “Uh. You’ve probably noticed that Canadians drink a lot of coffee.”
If you’ve never been to northern Ontario, Canada, let me tell you that coffee is a vital part of life. In some areas of my city, “throw a rock and you’ll hit a coffee shop” isn’t an exaggeration. People walk around with big paper cups of takeout coffee at all hours of the day and night. We use terminology like double-double or four-by-four to describe how much cream and sugar a particular cup of coffee has in it. You’d think that Canada grows coffee beans but no, we definitely don’t. Importing coffee and drinking it all the time is just a habit that has taken hold in our local culture.
Maybe it’s an extension of how hot beverages work well as a friendly, welcoming gesture? Coffee can be easily tailored to a guest’s tastes, served boiling hot or chilled over ice; with no cream or lots of it; with no sugar or several heaping spoonfuls; with non-dairy milks or calorie-free sweeteners. Canadians have a reputation for their friendly melting-pot culture and coffee suits it well. But that’s the only real reasoning I can think of. As those new immigrant customers pointed out, sometimes the most mundane customs will defy all rational explanation.
It makes me think of fictional worldbuilding, and the standards we hold fantasy worlds to — or even historical stories based in our true past. It’s easy to read a book and say, “That’s a dumb custom. Why would the characters do that? Don’t they notice that it makes no sense?” It’s easy to look at a fictional custom that doesn’t make sense and accuse the author of poor worldbuilding. But I go to my day job and offer people caffeine right before their bedtime, so I’m apparently not one to talk. Societies grow in strange ways sometimes.
◦ Teas and tisanes: What’s in a name? (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Food culture of Aligare (Part 2: Daily meals) (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Milk consumption in fantasy worlds (heidicvlach.com)
Gambling doesn’t have a very wholesome reputation in our world. Sure, you can buy some lottery tickets as a harmless gift, or have a nice vacation in Las Vegas and freely tell your coworkers about it. But think about gambling a little longer and we find a lot of negative connotations. On our Earth, gambling is often associated with dishonesty, danger, illegal activities and bad decisions. It can lead people down all sorts of slippery slopes.
Making a bet is very different in Aligare. Wagers don’t have whole subcultures attached to them — partly because aemets, korvi and ferrin haven’t put creative effort into scamming each other. Gambling — or, more commonly, “wagering” — is just a way to turn any activity into a friendly competition. It’s also common to say “I’d wager they will”, or “Bet a plum on that!” as a casual turn of phrase.
Just like on Earth, “I’d wager” comments can be a source of hyperbole. Make too grand a claim and there’s no risk anyone will believe it.
“Bet the house on that wager, my friend!” He fanned wing feathers to frame his own truth. “I’ll put words in ears and bring you a fine, heavy pouch full of gifts!”
— Syril of Reyardine being his effusive self, in Chapter 8 of Render (A story of Aligare)
When folk actually make wagers, they’re commonly made between folk of the same species. Maybe two fiesty young korvi decide to fly to that distant mountaintop and back, to see who can do it the fastest. Or a family of aemets all strive grow the biggest garden turnip with their plantcasting. Or a family of ferrin kits declare that the first one to find a crow feather in the forest wins — ready, go! But there can be interspecies wagers if everyone can agree on fair terms, or choose some mental or magical challenge where your body type doesn’t matter.
The more important part is that the wager participants trust each other. They’re usually family or close friends. In Aligare society, wagers are made for the thrill of competition — but with someone who’ll still like you no matter who wins. The prize is something small: some delightful food, a trinket, or a promise to do some chore. Wagering something large or valuable would defeat the point. How can everyone enjoy the contest if they’re worried about losing? The strong Aligare sense of fairness is present here. (Aligare folk would be confused and alarmed to hear that humans sometimes get themselves in deep financial trouble by gambling. They’d wonder why would a human would bet things they can’t afford to lose, and what sort of heartless person would accept those things.)
Because of the emphasis on trust and fair sport, it would be unusual to make a wager with a new acquaintance. That’s considered risky: most Aligare folk would be leery to either offer that wager or take it up. Who knows what the other person’s skills are? What if they don’t take losing well? It might be an unpleasant experience if the participants are poorly matched. Offering a wager to an acquaintance can be a bold way of flirting, though. Some Aligare folk have stories of a gutsy wager that brought delight and a new relationship. Some folk have sore memories of offering a wager and regretting it. Most just reserve wagers for their close circle of loved ones.
If the wager is something that lends itself to spectators — like physical feats, or casting talents, or song and dance — it might become a public performance. Neighbours might gather to watch the wager, knowing that it’s all in good fun and curious to see what happens. Feisty young korvi are a frequent source of public challenges, with their dragonkind talents of flight and fire being so naturally showy. For anyone of any race, participating in a wager can spark a love of performing and entertaining. And in trying times, a fun public wager can lift a village’s spirits. That’s well worth the prize.
◦ Aligare’s Mandragora, the Legend Creature of stories (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Food culture of Aligare (Part 2: Daily meals) (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Flashback post: How I used light and dark magic in the Aligare world (heidicvlach.com)
The creation myth in Aligare says that life and magic came from a plant, the Greatbloom. It blossomed for 48 years, then died in an instant.
That 48-year period is a unit of measurement in Aligare: an elden. Like how we have a particular word for a period of 100 years. Why does Aligare use such a random number?
Well, Aligare doesn’t have as much regard for factors of 10. For aemets, korvi and ferrin, a “nice, even number” doesn’t necessarily end in a zero. They’re more interested in factors of 2. Standing on 2 legs is stable; standing on 4 legs is even more stable. The sentient races have 4 digits on each hand and foot, and so do most of the wildlife. There are 2 high gods and 4 gods. The land seems to revolve around pairs and quartets, so these are the numbers considered important.
Four is a particularly lucky number because it’s 2 squared. If an Aligare citizen is particularly religious or superstitious, they’ll noticably prefer their life to be arranged in twos and fours. It’s a common preference in aemets.
“Feor, his name is?” Judellie leaned to see the dog better, to consider him. “Is that a special name …?”
“It’s likely based on four,” Mother said. She spoke confident: she knew every custom that had ever been declared lucky.
“The breeder said something like that,” Rue added. “He’s the fourth pup of his litter.”
“I’m glad he went to you,” Mother admitted. She worked an arm behind Rue, to put a love-soft hand on Rue’s shell. “You two match. Two is a half-measure of luck, you know.”
–Render (A story of Aligare), Chapter 7
Not everything falls into twos and fours. Most notably, there are 3 peoplekind races. And that part about 2 or 4 legs for stability? Well, korvi use their tails as a third leg. If everything were lucky or fated, then luck and fate wouldn’t be meaningful. But to be a crowd-pleaser in Aligare, your best bet is still to make everything divisible by 2.
◦ The meaning of book titles: how I named the Stories of Aligare (heidicvlach.com)
◦ The legend of Juniper (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Aligare greetings (heidicvlach.com)
You can tell a lot about a culture by what it builds. And in the Aligare world, folk don’t build a lot of structures other than homes and shared social spaces.
Aemets were mostly responsible for the advent of house construction. In ancient times, when ferrin lived in the trees and korvi lived on mountaintops, travelling families of aemets began building shelters out of fallen wood and plant debris, propped against living trees. As they developed their plantcasting magic into full-blown agriculture, they also developed the art of permanent(-ish) buildings made of plant materials. And like many Aligare developments, the process picked up speed as aemetkind befriended korvikind and the two races pooled their skills. In the timeframe of the Stories of Aligare, the vast majority of buildings are built in the aemet style.
Building a house in Aligare isn’t as simple as chopping up trees into lumber and nailing them together. Aemets treat the plant goddess’s gift of wood with great respect, so there are rules about how wood should be used. To respect the tree’s death, wood is never placed with its grain running perpendicular to the ground — which would be akin to propping up a dead body and pretending it’s alive. When wood is used to make the structural poles of a house, those poles are set into the ground at a slant. The exact angle isn’t important as long as it’s clearly not a 90 degree angle. Korvi often find the necessary wood for these poles, since they respect aemet ways but don’t have the same qualms about breaking a tree down into needed material. In some places, korvi metalsmiths provide steel poles for buildings — which don’t need to be placed in any particular way.
Widely was also a fine example of cooperation between the peoplekinds. Syril couldn’t help thinking that every time he landed; today, falling earthward on wide-held wings, he thought the very same. The buildings were roofed and walled with grass thatch, but built on metal poles so that aemet folk wouldn’t fuss about which direction the wood grain in the poles was running. Truly a revelation. The result was good, large buildings that tapered only slightly inward, instead of the drastically slanted pole homes that stifled out every bit of headspace a korvi could possibly put his horns in. All around, Widely made excellent use of materials, in Syril’s opinion.
–Render, a story of Aligare, Chapter 8
But when possible, aemets like to tie their house walls around living trees. The house is dismantled and retied each year, to accomodate the trees’ growth and avoid stunting them. With some plantcasting energy spent, it’s possible to grow trees specifically for house structure. If a village is founded in the plains and a few strong casters decide to put the effort in, that village can become a new patch of forest.
The roof (and sometimes the walls, too) are made of woven thatch. Polegrass — which can grow as tall as a person — is used, or else cornstalks from the town’s crops. Strongly scented flowers such as marigold are worked into the thatch to repel insects. Gaps are filled in with moss, cotton fibre or clay. If not thatch, the walls can also be made of wood boards, since the wood is laid horizontally. In fact, wood boards for houses are very valuable, usually given as gifts of love and esteem.
How lively everyone’s hopes had been, giving Arnon more precious boards than the remnants of the Tellig family could possibly use for their two selves. The newly named Fenwater had wanted a leader, someone too stalwart to fear demons, someone surrounded by children learning the trade. They gave their saviour Arnon more house boards, so he could make all the home he would ever need. Father had supposed – in a thoughtful moment years past, candlelight snagging on the lines around his eyes – that he would use the boards for extra training space until Rose had her children.
Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 5
What about korvi-style homes? Their major contribution to housing is pretty much the skill of mining. Hotrock Volcano is a network of tunnel-towns, where korvi live in the warm rock and scrape out spaces large enough to live in. Occasionally, nice slabs of rock are brought beyond Aligare’s mountains and mines, for use as furniture or walls. But for the most part, korvi make use of aemet-style homes when they travel beyond their ancestral Volcano home. If a social space is made with korvi visitors in mind, it’ll usually have a ceiling height that’s really excessive by aemet standards. That gives enough head space for the often-claustrophobic korvi to feel comfortable, and keeps them from catching their horns on the ceiling thatch.
And ferrin? When they first met the other peoplekinds, they hadn’t developed structural techniques other than their natural way of sheltering in hollow trees, or building squirrel-like nests of clumped plant matter. So ferrin usually accept whatever sturdy homes the other kinds build, or learn to build in the aemet way.
In the current time frame, Aligare hasn’t had much motivation to advance their building techniques. The climate is mild, so dirt floors and thatch walls suit everyone fine. And since aemet-majority villages often fold under the pressures of illness demons, it’s helpful that a village’s buildings can be easily taken apart for their boards and poles. Maybe in a few thousand years, Aligare homes will look different. Maybe.
- Interview with Indie Author Land: Render (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Special formatting in ebooks (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- The meaning of book titles: how I named the Stories of Aligare (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
First things first! This past week, I’ve been working the bugs out of Render’s paperback edition. It turns out there were some technical difficulties on my end (e.g. my poor little Macbook Air struggling to display a huge OpenOffice file) that threw my formatting out of whack. The print-on-demand version of Render available now has had these problems addressed, and all known typos corrected. I also managed to trim down the physical size, which — happily — allowed me to lower the paperback price to $13 USD. This lower price is available now through the Createspace store, and it should be reflected on Amazon in the next day or three.
Now then! Let me tell you about an issue I looked at while actually writing that book: characters’ speech patterns.
Sometimes, book reviewers will complain that a novel’s characters all “sound the same”. Meaning that multiple characters in a story have the same general pattern to their speech and use the same set of slang and idioms — regardless of their personality or background. In really severe cases, elderly farmers and urban teenagers might speak the very same way. That just doesn’t make any sense. It makes the characters blur together and it can even make the story outright confusing, if it’s too difficult to determine which character is speaking any given line. Even if a book’s characters are all from the same small town, they should put words together differently because, well. People are different.
And besides, these speech pattern differences can show a lot about how a person relates to their culture. In this culture, for example, women are unconsciously taught to be agreeable by phrasing things as questions, not commands. “Could you send me that report?” instead of, “Send me that report.” It’s an outdated idea but it persists, probably because it’s so engrained and commonplace that neither men nor women consciously notice it very often. I sometimes catch myself asking questions when I actually intend to direct someone confidently — and boy, am I annoyed with myself. And I see the same downfall in my fellow restaurant workers. Hosts often find that directing a customer to sit at a certain table is like herding cats. I noticed that the hosts who have the most trouble seating customers in a specific place? Are the younger female hosts, who say, “Is this table alright?” rather than, “Here is your table.” Phrasing does matter.
So if I were writing a story about a modern-day-ish woman from Canada/the United States, I’d pay close attention to how often her dialogue ends in a question mark. That particular pattern might reveal a lot about her. If she’s confident in commanding people, why is that? Because she’s a self-aware feminist? Because she works in a male-dominated career field and has picked up the speech pattern, a pattern she uses like a tool in everyday interaction? Maybe she’s just a very bluntly honest person who doesn’t care about seeming polite and agreeable? There are many ways her dialogue can shed light on her character — and as a bonus, she’ll seem distinct from the female characters who are always asking polite questions.
That’s just one angle. The way a person puts words together can reveal their past, their thoughts, their insecurities and much more. That’s the deeper layer, and then there are the more decorative elements — like that one character who exclaims “Great Scott!” when surprised instead of a more generic, “Oh my god!”
The Aligare world has a different cultural landscape than Canada in 2013, but I pay the same amount of attention whenever quotation marks show up in one of my books. I try to give everyone a particular feel to their phrasing, and make sure their speech really reflects who they are. In Render, Rue almost never uses “well” as verbal filler. “Well” is a mild, passive word and Rue is usually more decisive than that. She says “now” instead — so she says, “now, let’s see” to give a sense of immediacy that “well, let’s see” really wouldn’t convey. Everyone has their basic patterns and particular tics, which need to be used in the right amounts. People are quirky and they don’t even follow their own patterns 100% of the time. Syril of Reyardine speaks in long, rambling sentences, but he is capable of answering in four words or less.
So ultimately, editing a novel’s dialogue involves a lot of fussing over every word. I’m sure even non-writers know that. But if a character’s dialogue is distinctive and it fits who they are, it’s easy to forget that you’re reading about a fictional creation. The character becomes simply an interesting person you want to hear more from. Just like a random person you might meet at a party and find delightful. Like so many aspects of writing, good dialogue can be a lot of work — but done right, it comes off like the most natural thing in the world.
- Interview with Indie Author Land: Render (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Special formatting in ebooks (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- This weekend, What The Fur? 2013 (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
Render is primarily the story of Rue finding her place in an uneasy time. And that story would have turned out very differently if she hadn’t met Felixi. He’s a korvi who hunts wild game in the traditional way, by dropping onto it from the sky and taking it by surprise.
This looked like the Felixi of Velgarro in Rue’s imagination. He was thick-built in the shoulders, muscular like a hunter would need to be, his mane feathers long and wild. He straightened from his landing — and he turned stone-hard eyes to Rue.
His throat moved as though he meant to speak. Nothing came out for an instant; he swallowed, frowned, and tried again. “Something you want?” he asked in a rasping voice.
Like he hadn’t spoken lately. Like he was a wild creature himself.
–Render, a story of Aligare, Chapter 5
Because the three peoplekinds have a strong history of peace and cooperation, a stranger is usually just a friend you haven’t met. That’s the norm. If an aemet, korvi or ferrin doesn’t care for that sort of sociable life, they make recluses of themselves to avoid it. Folk respect the fact that recluses don’t want to be bothered, and will usually only seek out a recluse with an offer a trade, a warning of danger, or some other very good reason.
Felixi is one of these cases. His past is mysterious — but he definitely didn’t fit in with the last town he lived in, and his abrasive personality is made worse by some personal demons. At the time Render’s story happens, Felixi flat-out refuses to enter a settlement and dislikes the thought of associating with more than one person at once. He’s returned to a solitary, standoffish version of the korvi race’s most ancient roots — living on a mountain, spending his days in flight, hunting animals for food. He’s sort of a parallel to Render‘s antagonistic wolves: strange, snappish, frighteningly primal, but Felixi is still a creature with needs and motives. Actually, Felixi is about as close to archetypical Western dragons as an Aligare character could ever be.
I came up with Felixi while wondering about Aligare society. Sure, the three peoplekinds consider it normal to be friendly and cooperative. But what about the inevitable odd people? The minority who just don’t like all this symbiosis stuff and don’t fit in? Felixi has his good qualities but he’s still defined by his sharp-toothed refusal to be normal, and always fighting to protect that solitary freedom he can’t live without.
If you know anything about name roots, you’ve probably picked up on my cruel irony already. Felixi is a tweak of the name Felix, meaning “lucky” or “successful” in Latin. It’s usually a name for characters who are cheerful and loveable and happy, always the winners, always landing on their feet. It’s a name that would have suited nearly any korvi other than Felixi. Frankly, I feel a bit guilty for calling him that. (But not guilty enough to stop me from sketching jokes, apparently: here‘s slightly-off-model Felixi meeting an actual cheerful Felix, the one from the movie Wreck-It Ralph.)
The Render story introduces Rue the atypical aemet to Felixi the atypical korvi. And as they bond, Felixi shows more of his subtleties. His fears, his values, his dry brand of wit. Felixi was pretty much a closed book to me, the author, until I wrote scenes that pried him a little farther open. And that was a big part of why I finished the book.
- Render, a story of Aligare, is available now! (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- The role of emotion in Aligare magic (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- The meaning of book titles: how I named the Stories of Aligare (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)