Making foreign mindsets relatable for modern readers

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Gurkhal, Aug 6, 2018.

  1. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Shadow Lord

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    Ok, I hope this is understandable, and posted in the right place.

    This is something which I have been thinking about and one of the reason as to why I've, so far, given up on writing more exotic (from my perspective) fantasy stories.

    How to make the values and concerns of an unumodern mindset seems relevant, or make some kind of sense, to a modern reader?

    That is how to write a character who is both distinctly not a modern human, be it a Aztec-inspired human or a elf with with a spirit of fire melded with her mind and soul, and make their concerns and agendas meaningful or relatable to a modern reader, without essentially transforming these people into LARP:ers who only play at not being 21st century humans.

    What's your thoughts on this?
     
  2. FifthView

    FifthView Istari

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    You can whittle down various desires, hopes, dreams, terrors, etc., to their most basic components, and trigger these.

    So...most people now living don't really fear the tiny Merfghandimen who creep out of the cracks of the earth at night to feast on the flesh of men who have turned their backs on Horbor who lives beneath the earth. But, humans do still have various fears and can still feel the weight of conscience and guilt via a Tell-Tale Heart.

    There's a certain difference between foreign and alien. Alien is much harder to do without anthropomorphism. What does the alien in Aliens really fear, value, dream about? Heh. What about the intelligent planet in Solaris?

    So, foreign is easier to do than alien. Maybe I'm just isolating those two words in this way because for me it's easier to attempt a conceptual separation, the sort you've hinted at in your OP. Different, but familiar—but obviously different. I read an article in the last couple weeks about a water ceremony in Japan that some were using to try to break that major, long-lasting heat wave they've been suffering; kids (and some adults?) have been sprinkling water on the hot pavement to "cool it" with the hope this might have some effect. That's foreign to me, but not alien. I can understand ritual, desire, hopefulness.

    I suppose that even some aliens might have hunger and the drive to procreate (a la Aliens), so even in those cases these more basic drives and needs might be recognizable.

    TL;dr: Put some more focus on the foreign exterior displays or manifestations of those whittled-down, recognizable desires, hopes, fears, etc. This can show the differences, make those characters seem obviously different while relatable.

    Also, some twists on those displays/manifestations can serve as a sharp focus on the differences. Think of what some modern human might do in a situation that we recognize, and then have that character do something most modern humans wouldn't do. For instance, to combat the jealousy he feels, your MC sells himself into slavery to a race that always cuts off human thumbs when they acquire a new human slave. Heh. I don't know.
     
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  3. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Lore Master

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    I have three questions to ask you:

    1. Which part of the world do you live in?
    2. Is your neighbourhood mono-cultural, bi-cultural or multi-cultural?
    3. Do you feel comfortable being around people of other races, cultures etc?

    There is a logical and relevant reason for these questions but you need to be most honest with number 3 as this will go a long way towards helping me answer your question.
     
  4. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Shadow Lord

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    Well, yeah in the terms you put it I meant alien as opposed to foreign, bad choice of words on my part and terrible example with Aztecs. If I write elves to be, well, distinctly not like humans as I know them, how can I make these elves relatable to the reader?

    Cutting it down to core human drives works for humans, but if you're adding non-humans of a "not humans with pointy ears" version then it becomes more difficult as on the one hand it would make them relatable but on the other hand risk of humanizing them too ,much and make the question "Why are these not just humans in the story anyway?"

    I've played around with thoughts on various non-humans and stuff like elemental creatures, fae, nature spirits and the like but it usually comes down to how to make the reader read about an alien mindset and both get the feeling that this is not another human character while at the same time also ensure that the reader gets something from reading about these non-humans?
     
  5. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Lore Master

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    Gurkhal - My questions may have struck you as odd but the reason I asked them is because the way that a person interacts with, and learns, about other cultures can help them with creating non-human characters that people can relate to. At least that's what I have found.

    Being from a multi-cultural background means that I often come into contact with people from cultures whose way of looking at things is so fundamentally different from my own that they may as well be alien. Once the culture has been put in the greater context of the environment, history, social interactions, economic interactions, institutions etc that created and shaped the culture that which seemed to be so alien suddenly makes sense.

    What I suggest is that you meet with people from other ethnic, national or cultural backgrounds and ask them for their views on life's basic questions and let them tell tell you in their own words. That will not only give you ideas about what makes the non-human characters in your fantasy world tick but it may also allow you to let the non-human characters reveal themselves to you in ways that may surprise you.
     
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  6. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Dark Lord

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    The basic answer is simple, execution may be complex: write them well and readers will relate. Empathy is a human trait.

    The only way to do "true alien" is to not write from inside the alien's head, once any writer goes inside the alien's head, it is anthropomorphised. Some are more overt than others, Bugs Bunny vs a Klingon, but still anthropo in the end. It's impossible to not think as a human, while being human.

    The notion of "might as well be alien" is peculiar to me. The Yanomami have some wild cultural habits that'll make most modern folks blink and stare, but in the end they're all very human. It might be more accurate to say: they might as well be an anthropomorphised alien, heh heh.
     
  7. FifthView

    FifthView Istari

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    Well, I just chose "foreign" vs "alien" in order to find two points on a spectrum of difference. I'm still not clear on what you are aiming for on that continuum, although it seems you are wanting to be able to show characters that are quite different from all humans you've encountered or studied.

    "Why not humans?" is a great question.

    I may have made my last comment a little unclear. I wouldn't have said "cutting it down to core human drives" but rather, "cutting it down to core drives." Do you think that some drives, emotions, reactions, logic, etc., may be universal—or at least nearly universal? Even if these things are expressed and experienced somewhat differently by an alien creature, you may be able to find some similarity. Perhaps you'll only be able to find a few points of similarity; e.g., an elemental creature may have no emotions of fear, love, a desire for community, but may have some emotion approximating hunger or anger.

    I mentioned logic because I think core logic systems are likely to be the most universal. If some creature X is here and desires to be there, 20 miles away, logic would dictate that he find some means of getting there—just like a human would. But perhaps unlike a human, who might walk or ride a beast of burden or take the train, creature X may wait until the wind shifts, release his long, thin roots, and let the wind carry him in the general direction, even if he has to do this multiple times over a month as he corrects his course. The logic of having to do something to cross that distance is substantially the same, but for a human to plan to release his roots and let the wind carry him would be illogical.

    There is a kind of trick to doing this that I would relate to pareidolia. You may be familiar with the term. Humans have a tendency to find familiar patterns—or, that is, to see patterns as being something familiar even if they are not. So that recent story about the orca carrying its dead newborn calf on its snout for ten (or more, now) days can evoke familiar emotions and values for humans. The orca is grieving, just like a human. The orca is sad. The orca loves its calf and wants its calf to be alive. But are these accurate? Scientists have said, yes, more or less. But do we know that?

    So...using this sort of pattern weaving for your readers can help them to sympathize, empathize, or "understand" a foreign or alien creature. This may work even though the readers are "off" or wrong about that alien mindset. Let's imagine a creature Y that carries its dead newborn offspring on its shoulders across 100 miles over two weeks. The human reader may think, "Awe...," but maybe that creature Y is doing this because dead offspring left near its normal home environment always bring predator Q's, and this creature Y is only interested in self preservation. Creature Y will return to its home after depositing the dead newborn 100 miles away. There is a catch-22 here, because giving the wrong idea to the reader can be very bad indeed, hah; but...alien mindset? And yet, that creature Y is trying to survive, and this is something relatable. You could give the reader the right interpretation, near the end of Y's effort as it has returned home, and this might be shocking to the reader but made a little more understandable once predator Q is introduced. Maybe.

    The point of the above scenario would be that creature Y has struggles in life, wants to endure, and suffers tragedies stoically, perhaps. These are all things a human reader can relate to, even if creature Y is quite obviously not human.

    Edit: Incidentally, for me it's sometimes hard to create great examples to illustrate approaches and feel certain I've succeeded, heh.
     
    Last edited: Aug 7, 2018
  8. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Shadow Lord

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    I will let this rest for I did not respond to your questions due to them being strange, I found them to be very much otherwise. I will make this reply and not just slip into void since I made this thread and you responded in it.

    Thank you for your advice, I will probably consider them in the future.
     
  9. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Shadow Lord

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    Sorry for double posting.

    I'm feeling bad that I don't give a proper respone to your posts so here goes, and hopefully it won't go down really bad.

    The feeling I get from your three questions is that your insinuate that I'm a narrow-minded racist who only want to associate with people sharing my own skin color, and probably living in gated community or similar enviroment. I may be wrong but this is really the impression as I see no reason to why someone would ask these, retorical in my mind, questions without that thought hiding behind it.

    I thank you for your second post but I'm afraid that's now going to work for me since I'm really not a people person. I can't walk up to someone and make friends with them like that. That's not in my skill set. I read alot about different cultures and I'm happy to learn about them but pretty much all my contacts with people from such cultures have been, how do you say, lacking in quality.
     
  10. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Lore Master

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    I should've worded the questions better but it was never my intention to imply that you were narrow minded or racist and i apologize if that is how the questions came across.

    I come across as very confident in print but in real life I'm very shy and don't find it easy to talk to people. Sometimes, though, my insatiable curiosity sometimes over-rides my inhibitions so my local Hindu Indian shop keeper has learned not to be surprised if I ask them questions like "Why do Hindus have so many gods?". The answer to that question is that they only have one god but they have multiple names for their god which often causes confusion for people unfamiliar with their faith.

    It doesn't help that I advise people on social security issues here in New Zealand and that often means asking questions that sometimes come across as uncouth or intrusive. It's not aimed at being rude or anything nasty. It's aimed at helping them by providing accurate advice that'll help them. When I'm on this forum I sometimes forget that I'm not in "helping people deal with bureaucrats" mode.

    So, again, I apologize if I offended you.
     
    Last edited: Aug 8, 2018
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  11. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Shadow Lord

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    No harm done and I can see where you're coming from. For better or worse I think we've learned a little about each other and hopefully we'll have more interaction in the future. :)
     
  12. Corwynn

    Corwynn Lore Master

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    I find it helpful to study animal behaviour. It is probably the best glimpse we have into a truly alien mindset. I used ideas from this to come up with my own races and cultures.

    It also helps to study non-Western and pre-modern cultures. The more uninfluenced by contemporary Western cultural norms, the better.
     
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  13. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    How different do you have to make an invented character? I think you may be trying to do the impossible. Humans anthropomorphize everything, even inanimate objects. It helps us make sense of the world. So, no matter how the author crafts the character, the reader is going to view that character in fundamentally human ways.

    That said, authors have indeed managed to render quite strange and alien beings in convincing ways. I recommend you start with classic science fiction. Study the masters. It can be done.
     
  14. Yora

    Yora Mystagogue

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    This is also a relevant aspect with my setting. And my approach to the issue is to have characters debate their wishes and priorities with each other. A main character is not certain about what to do and explains the problem to another, who then gives a complementing opinion that helps with coming to a decision.
    Readers might not share the priorities of the characters, but it does enable them to understand why the characters act the way they do.
     
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