Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Establishing the Norm in an Alien Culture
Reality Skimming Discussion Lynda Williams and Krista Ball October 2010Here’s the problem. You have a character out to break the rules — but the reader doesn’t know what’s normal in your alien society. How do you set up behavioral expectations at the same time as you violate them?

In the good old days, a writer like J. R. R. Tolkien could indulge in chapters of Shire life before evil intrudes on the squabbles of the hobbits. I believe some set up is still essential if you want the bang that comes from contrast when something extraordinary happens, but modern writers rarely get whole chapters. Like the movies made of Tolkien’s classic epic, we have to establish norms faster.

The Okal Rel Universe in which my novels are set has been called “complex”, “well-thought out” and “original”. Culture clash between groups occurs regularly and a lot of the fun relies on readers understanding the world views in collision. The more ORU people read, the more they get out of it. But how to get them started?

This discussion, hosted by myself and author Krista Ball, invites you to help us explore the peculiarly SF problem of establishing “the norm” of an alien culture in the midst of having trouble-making characters tromp through it. What works for you, as a writer or a reader, and what doesn’t?

Here’s my main pet peeve to get us started: characters who don’t represent their culture even minimally. At best, a work with a seriously different setting can get away with maybe one entirely anomalous rebel. But if that’s the case, there had better be a strong supporting cast who do represent the “norm” for the rebel to interact with. Then the contrast can illuminate not only the norm but the deviation.

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Hmmm...Hi Lynda and Krystal, well I have a novel coming out in a few months set 50 years in the future on an Earth where we're brain-to-brain connected in a vast web. You're pet peeve strikes a chord with me as my main character has a very poor connection, he's a regression of a sort when compared to your average citizen. His wife has just given birth to a 'disconnect', which might has well be a mangy cat for all its value to society. At least this is how everything appears at the outset. I think you can get the gist of it all in less than a chapter, other backstory can be woven in as you go. It helps when there are elements that are familiar I think. A truly alien society would present issues, but I also think a reader reading about a truly alien society will give the author more time to world build. Provided the writing is interesting, the 'newness' should hold the attention.

My two cents.

Michael F Stewart
Thanks Michael. I like the idea of the disconnected person being the rebel/protagonist. Time to ask ourselves how much plugged-in is too much plugged-in. :-)
I think it's easy to rebel a bit from social norms; we all do it. It's really hard to rebel from all social norms. So, as long as the alien rebel isn't completely opposite, I generally let it slide - within reason.

I really like to see several people rebelling and having all of them in different levels of rebellion. It's more realistic, I think.
I wanted to let you know I've just enjoyed reading your post and the discussion. What a great topic!
Thanks for letting us know M. L. Archer. :-)
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