Romance and the Big Lie

Often a story is built around an elaborate deception.  It may be a caper or heist story, like the Ocean’s Eleven series.  It may be a spy story or thriller.  But there’s more at stake when the Big Lie is central to the main characters’ relationship.  Million-dollar prizes or secret papers are small potatoes; love is serious business.

Let’s look at cases where a romance is founded on a Big Lie.  Resolving that discontinuity—bringing the relationship safely onto a firmer footing—tends to become the main issue of the storyline.  And because at least some of the characters are mistaken about what’s going on, incongruities abound, and the natural home of such stories is romantic comedy.

Dramatic Deceptions

A Big Lie imperils a romance in the most challenging way is if the lie is about the relationship itself.  We can be confused about a potential lover’s name, or status, or identity:  consider all those songs that say ‘I don’t care who you are, only that you love me.’  But if the love itself is false—based on ulterior motives—we’ve got trouble.

10 Things I Hate About You (movie poster)The high-school rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, is a simple example.  Sophomore Bianca’s overcautious dad won’t let her date unless her older sister, the prickly and unsociable Kat, does too.  Bianca and an admirer arrange for “bad boy” Patrick Verona to be paid to date Kat.  Naturally, Patrick has a hard time convincing Kat he’s really interested in her; but by the time we reach the climactic prom, he actually is.  Naturally, that’s when the secret about the bribe is revealed, leading Kat to reject Pat and storm out.  When she realizes she’s fallen for him, and that he really does care, we arrive at the happy ending.

If A starts out pursuing B for base motives in a comedy, we’re almost bound to be riding the trope where an attachment that starts out fake becomes real.  It may be a cliché, but the pattern has everything going for it:  at least one of the lovers experiences a reluctant or unexpected change, providing a character development arc; the secret creates tension; the inevitable reveal produces emotional drama; and the shift from cynical motives to genuine affection pleases those of us who aren’t already too cynical to be convinced.  TV Tropes locates this plotline at the intersection of the tropes “Was It All A Lie“ and “Becoming the Mask.”

27 Dresses (movie poster)For a grown-up example, try 27 Dresses (2008), with Katherine Heigl and James Marsden.  The unholy motivation here isn’t money, but ambition.  Newspaperman Kevin Doyle (Marsden) wants to shift from writing fluffy wedding reviews to serious investigative journalism.  When he realizes that always-a-bridesmaid Jane Nichols has been in no fewer than 27 of her friends’ weddings, he figures that writing an exposé article about her is his ticket to making the transition to Real Journalist.  But as he gets to know her, he finds she’s not as shallow as he thought.  His attraction becomes genuine just at the point where the unexpected publication of his exposé reveals that he’s been using her for professional advancement.  Because there are other character issues in play, a good deal of further action is needed before Jane recognizes that Kevin’s the one for her.

The Big Lie’s Challenges

A plot built around the Big Lie carries with it some difficulties, which any such story will have to face (or dodge).

One is plausibility.  The bigger the fake, the more unlikely it may seem that someone could pull it off.  On the other hand, the more entertainingly appalling the secret is, the more likely we are to let it ride, just for the fun of it.  This critical leniency is what TV Tropes calls the Rule of Funny (“The limit of the Willing Suspension of Disbelief for a given element is directly proportional to its funniness”).  We can be similarly willing to bend plausibility on such grounds as the Rule of Romantic, Rule of Sexy, Rule of Cute, and of course the Rule of Cool.

More important, we may lose sympathy for the character who conducts such a deception.  A lot depends on the original motivation:  is it understandable, forgivable?  A journalist, for example, can legitimately pursue a story.  The strain occurs when the relationship becomes personal enough that the reporter’s aloof interest in a source begins to seem discordant, or when it becomes evident that the article will be taking advantage of the source’s vulnerabilities or weaknesses.  If the deceiver’s uneasiness grows in proportion to those considerations, we can continue to sympathize.

What makes this kind of plot development understandable is that it reflects a natural progression.  Our love for someone grows (sometimes, at least) as we get to know them better.  So the idea that characters initially brought together for baser motives can eventually fall in love has a built-in plausibility.  It also makes the deceiver’s change of heart more excusable.

Variations

How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days (movie poster)There are enough different ways to run this plotline to keep the Cauldron of Story boiling.

In How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), both characters are initially acting from unromantic motives.  Andie Anderson, like Kevin Doyle, is a journalist who wants to get more serious assignments.  She decides to start dating a man and drive him away using classic mistakes women make.  Ben Barry, for business-related reasons, makes a bet that he can get any woman to fall for him.  The fact that each of them is in an equally compromised position helps take the sting out of the deceptions.

You’ve Got Mail (1998) develops into the Big Lie after Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) finds out that his intimate online friend is really Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), the same woman he’s skirmishing with about business matters—and he doesn’t tell her.  From that point on, his actions are informed by something she doesn’t know.  But the characters already have a nascent affection—he’s simply grappling with what to do about it without giving her an equal opportunity, which is not as bad.

The Lie is averted in Runaway Bride (1999).  Ike Graham (Richard Gere) is trying to get to know Maggie Carpenter (Julia Roberts) better in order to write a detailed exposé and redeem his journalistic reputation.  But in this case, she’s perfectly well aware that he’s stalking her for discreditable motives, and is willing to use that for her own purposes (and to mess with his mind).  The plot develops in a different direction.  (There seems to be something about this trope that attracts reporter characters.)

These stories, on the whole, are comedies.  But the romantic deception makes up the serious part of the plot engine.  It really is a genuine issue between the characters.  The serious/comic combination isn’t really a paradox:  a comedy of this sort needs a “heart.”  Even a light comedy has to have some gravity, something we care about, at the core; pure fluff doesn’t hold our attention for long.  Even a fluffy soufflé has to be made out of real eggs.  (And that’s no yolking matter.)

Comedies of Errors

We do, however, also have a class of romantic comedies in which the deception is the comic element and not fundamental to the relationship.  Typically this involves something minor that snowballs to absurd proportions, for comic effect.  The deception isn’t about the romantic interest per se, but about something else.  As a result, the people involved come across as kinder, and the issue of character and trust isn’t quite as grave.

While You Were Sleeping (movie poster)A character might, for example, fall into a Big Lie by accident, and then (more or less plausibly) be unable to retrieve it.  While You Were Sleeping (1995) is a favorite example of mine.  Lonely Lucy Moderatz (Sandra Bullock) admires Peter Callaghan, a handsome commuter on the subway line where she’s a token collector, but she has never actually spoken to him.  When he’s mugged and falls onto the rail tracks, she saves him, though he falls into a coma.  A chance utterance from her convinces first the hospital staff, and then the unconscious man’s family, that she is actually his fiancée.

The writers go to considerable trouble to maintain that error while keeping Lucy’s motives innocent.  By the time she has a chance to correct the mistaken impression, she’s concerned that revealing the truth might be a shock to Peter’s grandmother, who has a weak heart.  When Peter’s godfather learns the truth, he encourages Lucy’s deception—because he likes Lucy and feels that she’s as good for the family as the lively, boisterous family is for her.  In the meantime, Lucy develops a true and reciprocal affection not for the unconscious Peter, but for Peter’s brother Jack (Bill Pullman).

False Colours book coverA relatively innocent deception might also be carried out for good motives.  Georgette Heyer’s False Colours involves the Fancot twins, a responsible diplomat (Kit) and his rackety brother (Evelyn, which is in this case a male name).  Kit arrives home to find Evelyn has disappeared just when he’s supposed to meet the family of Cressy Stavely, the young lady to whom Evelyn has proposed a marriage of convenience.  Their flighty mother talks Kit into impersonating Evelyn, just for this one occasion, to save the pending marriage.  Of course circumstances conspire to require Kit to keep up the imposture a good deal longer—much to careful Kit’s dismay.

Heyer is a master at making plausible what at first seems entirely unlikely.  We hear that Kit and Evelyn used to pretend to be each other frequently when they were young.  Kit’s real affection for his brother is the foundation on which his mother cajoles him into the charade.  Moreover, no emotional damage is done, so Kit’s character is not impugned.  When Kit falls in love with Cressy himself (she’s a much better match for him than for Evelyn), it’s not too long before he finds that Cressy has actually figured out the imposture some time since—and is much fonder of him than of Evelyn.  Moreover, when Evelyn finally shows up (with a good excuse), it turns out he’s fallen in love with a different girl.  So no harm comes of the innocent deception, and we can simply enjoy the ingenious maneuvers by which Kit manages to extricate everyone from the results of sailing under “false colours.”

Conclusion

The Big Lie is an inherently tricky device, and requires some care for an author to pull off without irretrievably damaging the character of the deceiving lover.  Deception undermines trust—and the lover must be seen to be trustworthy if the romance is to succeed at all.  Lois McMaster Bujold captured the point in a recent response to a reader:

The question a romance plot must pose, and answer (showing one’s work!) is not “Do these two people get together?” but rather “Can I trust you?”  Which is most certainly not a trivial problem, in art or in life.

But if the writer is adroit enough, the Big Lie does afford opportunities for high (and low) comedy, and it can be managed to a satisfying conclusion.

Good intentions may pave the road to Hell; but on the other hand, dubious motives can be redeemed—if both parties are ultimately willing to deal with the truth.  Since we belong to a species whose motives are seldom wholly pure, there’s a certain reassurance in that.

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Worldwasting: Ragnarok and The Last Jedi

Recently, as the DVD releases became available, I re-watched Thor:  Ragnarok (Thor 3) and Star Wars:  The Last Jedi (Star Wars VIII, “TLJ”).  I enjoyed both movies very much.  But each takes a direction that leads to some reflections on the fine art of worldbuilding.

Making the World

World in geometric pattern (worldbuilding)F&SF writers talk a lot about “worldbuilding”:  constructing a whole background for your story, an imaginary world.  Other kinds of fiction also do some of this. A romance or a Western or a mainstream novel may take place in a fictional town, let the characters eat at an imaginary restaurant, have a marketing maven write slogans for a nonexistent product.  But fantasy and science fiction require the author to invent much more and take less for granted.

Worldbuilding is a fascinating exercise that can become an engrossing end in itself.  We can spend hours on developing languages or family trees or maps.  Tolkien (of course!) famously referred to this process as “sub-creation,” analogous to the creative power of God.  (On Wikipedia, “sub-creation” redirects right back to the main page on worldbuilding.)  There’s even a Worldbuilding Magazine and a Reddit subsite for “sharing your worlds and discussing the many aspects of creating new universes.”

But the primary purpose of worldbuilding in fiction is to provide a background for the story—one with enough depth and verisimilitude to aid the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief.”  The fictional world is most of all a resource for the story.

. . . And Unmaking It

But a resource can also become a constraint.  Every decision you make for a world limits what you can do later.  If I’ve placed a mountain range here, I can’t put a flat desert in the same place.  If my main character’s father is a heroic pilot, he can’t also be the threatening villain.  (Er, or maybe he can—with enough feverish “retconning” to patch the gap.)

The more the world accretes additional detail over a series of books or movies, the more it may become a confining “Procrustean bed” to which later stories must be fitted.  The problem reaches its height in comic book series, where the same characters’ adventures may run for decades, at the hands of many different writers and artists.  The characters’ backstories and the background details eventually are almost bound to become a “continuity snarl,” with so many contradictory elements that no one can figure out what’s going on any more.  The authors or producers can be driven to “reboot” their world—start over from scratch—as a desperate way to clear up the mess.Colorful spiral

Even if things doesn’t reach this pass, however, a writer may want to get rid of some pre-existing elements.  Maybe they’ve just gotten boring:  who wants to see the same character angst and relationship issues recur over four hundred episodes?  Maybe an old bit of worldbuilding or character history would get in the way of an appealing new development.  Maybe the writer just wants to emphasize how big and menacing a new threat is by having it destroy something that seemed like a fixture of the universe—or simply shock the reader by defying those status quo expectations.

Alongside the draw of building out an ever more fine-grained world, then, there’s a corresponding temptation to tear things up and make radical changes.  In search of greater drama, let’s go all the way!

Such dramatic reversals can be productive.  Sometimes the status quo has become boring and needs to be upended.  But it’s a dangerous enterprise.  The built world is our resource.  The reader’s or viewer’s attachment to characters, enjoyment of well-established locales, and appreciation for long-running history provides a good deal of the continuing interest for the audience.  We risk throwing that away, piece by piece, if we throw away large chunks of the world-background unwisely.

Bags of seed cornThere’s a problem known as spending your capital, or “eating your seed corn.”  If you have to use up the resources necessary for the next step or the next generation – consuming the seed you need to plant for next year’s harvest – the needs of the moment may imperil the chances for longer-range development.  The worldbuilding “resource” represents the capital the writer has on hand to engage readers and develop the story.  It has to be invested wisely.

We’re finally ready to look at the two movies I mentioned—and, unavoidably, to warn—

Here Be Spoilers!

Thor:  Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok movie posterFirst, a qualification.  Both of these movies are middle pieces:  we don’t know how the stories end.  (Ragnarok’s “sequel” is Avengers:  Infinity War—and we’ll find out how that develops later this week.  For TLJ, we’ll have to wait for December 2019.)  So we can’t yet fully evaluate what the authors are doing.  But both spend their worldbuilding capital rather freely.

Ragnarok’s villain is Hela, queen of the underworld.  She’s powerful.  How powerful is she?  The first thing she does upon entering Asgard is to kill Fandral and Volstagg, two of the beloved “Warriors Three” that comic-book readers have been following since 1965 and movie viewers since the original Thor.  (The third warrior, Hogun, meets his end a few scenes later.)

Hela wipes them out without breathing hard.  Does that prove her sufficiently badass?  Sure.  Is it a fitting end for such long-standing heroes?  It seems rather abrupt—not even time for memorable last words.

More important, the summary termination deprives the series of those three characters for later stories.  That’s a loss.  If any young ladies were swooning over the dashing Fandral, they will swoon no more.  We won’t see Thor’s three battle buddies at the climactic engagement of the Infinity War.  Of course, given the enormous number of major characters Marvel already has to accommodate somehow in Infinity War, maybe reducing the count by three is seen as an advantage.  But the Marvel Cinematic Universe has lost some potential energy.

Hela crushes Thor's hammerThor’s iconic hammer Mjolnir is featured prominently in the opening scenes of Ragnarok—so it can be caught and shattered by Hela when Thor first meets her.  While Thor (as Odin dryly points out) is not defined by his hammer, it’s his characteristic weapon, and we’ve been shown many times that no one else can even lift it.  Again, Hela’s casual treatment of Mjolnir is startling enough to establish her threat level.  But it’s hard to picture Thor going through the remaining battles of the Cineverse arc without his trusty hammer.

By the end of the movie, Asgard itself is destroyed, and the surviving Asgardians are setting out to find a new home.  While the moment is certainly moving, the universe is a little poorer for the absence of the classic afterworld so brilliantly realized in Thor’s scene design.

Most strikingly, Ragnarok essentially drops the romantic element that’s played a significant part in the story so far.  It appears Thor has simply broken up with Jane Foster (or vice versa)—an ignoble offstage end to what we were to regard as a serious love affair.

Sif (comics)Now, those of us who remember the original comics might be content enough to have Jane replaced by Sif, who, after all, was Thor’s wife in the mythology—and whose interest in Thor was specifically established in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series.  But Sif is also absent, and we don’t even hear an explanation.  It’s possible these two characters were cleared away to make room for a potential romance with the new character Valkyrie (Brunnhilde).  But we don’t really see any sparks fly or bonds form for Thor and Brunnhilde in Ragnarok.

The MCU has backstory to burn, and it’s still quite possible that these will turn out to be resources well spent to build dramatic potential for the overall Avengers plot arc.  One hopes so; a world is a terrible thing to waste.

The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi movie posterThe Force Awakens knocked out one of the pillars of the Star Wars universe by “expending” Han Solo.  That was surprising, but not alarming.  These original-trilogy characters have lived full lives (if not entirely satisfactory ones).  We expect them to give way to the new generation of main characters.  It wasn’t startling to see another New Hope stalwart bite the dust in Episode VIII.  But TLJ goes considerably further than that.

It seems pretty clear that Luke has shuffled off this mortal coil at the end of TLJ:  he’s preformed the Jedi-master trick of evaporating out of his clothing, like Obi-wan and Yoda before him.  We can expect to see him again as a Force ghost, but not to do anything except offer sage advice.  (On the other hand, the ghostly Yoda seems to have called down lightning to burn up the old tree—a more direct intervention than we’ve seen a departed Jedi accomplish before.)

In addition, we won’t see Leia in Episode IX; the character is still alive at the end of TLJ, but is sadly now subject to what TV Tropes has called “Actor Existence Failure.”  That eliminates all three central characters from the first Star Wars picture.

We have the new characters to carry us forward.  But in several ways TLJ weakens their potential plot energy as well.  The most important issue, of course, is Rey and her parentage.

Rey cries out to departing spaceshipRey’s origin probably excited more speculation than any other topic between Episodes VII and VIII.  The solution presented in TLJ is brilliant, in its way:  Rey’s parents are nobodies, uncaring drifters who sold her to a junk dealer for drinking money.  Director Rian Johnson’s solution succeeded in surprising us, since it avoided all the plausible speculations fans had offered over the preceding two years.  More important, this revelation strikes at the heart of Rey’s stubborn, anchoring belief that her parents would return for her someday.  It would be a major character issue to see how she deals with the blow—if we get a chance to see it; she was in the middle of a major battle at the time and there was very limited opportunity to see how she was taking the news.

We should pause to consider whether Kylo Ren was telling Rey the truth, or presenting a lie designed to play on what he’d just called her weakness.  She says she recognizes the truth of his statement at some level herself (reminiscent of Luke’s reaction to Vader in Episode V).  But in her state of confusion, that may not be decisive.

On the other hand, there are a few things that don’t fit well with Kylo’s claim.  In the Force Awakens (“TFA”) flashback scene, we saw young Rey crying out to a departing spaceship.  Would these poor, anonymous drifters have been likely to own a spaceship?  And it’s always been a bit mysterious how the young Rey, if she was essentially a slave to Unkar Plutt without any family connections, was somehow allowed to buy herself free (presumably) and attain even the subsistence life of a scavenger in which we first see her.  It could turn out that the real truth is yet to be revealed.

But I consider that a long shot at best.  Like “I am your father,” the “nobodies” option is simply too good a narrative move to throw away.  It subverts the “Chosen One” theme that’s been running in Star Wars since the beginning, bringing us closer to a more Lord of the Rings-like “democratic” trope.  That shift in attitude is consistent with several moves in TLJ, including the introduction of Rose, the change in presentation of the Force, and especially the wonderful scene at the very end.

If we do accept Kylo’s description of Rey’s parents, it dissipates a lot of potential interest.  There are no hidden connections to be discovered; the mystery is no mystery, but an anticlimax.  There are no further plot developments to follow on Rey’s parentage.  That highly-charged element of TFA simply seems to have been abandoned—dare I say wasted?

Rose kisses FinnAs with Ragnarok, romance also seems to be relegated to a minor role.  TFA gave us a fascinating relationship between Rey and Finn that seemed to be developing toward a romance.  But they’re separated for most of TLJ, and meanwhile another well-wrought character, Rose Tico, is lined up with Finn.  After Rose tells Finn she loves him, we get a final scene in which Rey rather ruefully turns away from seeing Finn tenderly tucking in the near-death Rose (although Finn himself hasn’t made any declaration yet).

If Rey doesn’t fall in love with Finn, who else is there?  There’s no sign of any mutual interest with Poe, and if she were going to converge with Kylo (as I’ve occasionally feared), the place for that would have been during their mutual battle on Snoke’s flagship—and no romantic move was made.  Like Luke, Rey may be meant for a single life.  There’s nothing wrong with that per se—but declining the potential for romance is, again, letting a degree of character interest fade away.

Finally, there’s the Force itself.  That’s always been a tricky concept, right back to A New Hope—something worthy of more specific discussion one of these days.  But whatever tricks TFA added to the repertoire, TLJ seems to take away.

Does the Force have purposes?  Does it act on its own?  There are things in the original trilogy (IV-VI) that suggest it might.  And in Episode I, we were told that that Force apparently engendered little Anakin Skywalker without even requiring a father.

The title of the series’ revival in Episode VII, The Force Awakens, suggested that Something Big was happening, with its source in the Force itself.  But two movies later, I still have no idea what “an awakening in the Force” is supposed to mean.

J.J. Abrams built up the potential for some kind of revelation in TFA.  But in TLJ, Johnson seems to dissipate that anticipation entirely.  Yoda’s new instruction appears to be that the Force doesn’t act on its own, we simply use it as we will.  Frankly, in a way I like that approach better:  the notion of the Force moving us around like puppets for its own purposes was a bit creepy.  However, our expectation of some revelation about an “awakening” seems to have been scuttled.  Again, it’s not that the new plot development is bad; it’s that the worldbuilding set up by previous episodes seems to be ignored or undone by the most recent film.

Conclusion

Good worldbuilding and plot development are like winding up a spring:  you’re infusing energy into the system that can later be released to power the narrative.  These two recent stories seem to have the opposite effect:  they’re blowing off steam, releasing pressure, without fully utilizing that energy to enhance our interest.

Since we have yet to see how either story line comes out, it’s also possible that my comments could be entirely mistaken:  the apparent untwisting of plot potential may be twisting up new possibilities that aren’t visible yet.  We’ll have to wait and see; that’s the fun of it.

A Character By Any Other Name

Last time we talked about the complications of naming babies.  Of course, parents have only a few children.  But writers have to name a lot of characters.  Coming up with the right names is tricky; some writers are better at it than others.  Let’s look at how they meet the challenge.

The Familiar

If you’re writing a contemporary story, you’re in much the same position as a proud parent—except that you know how the person turns out, and you can pick a name that carries the implications you want for the character.  Dickens can name one pleasant pair the Cheeryble Brothers and a less prepossessing soul Scrooge to underline their personalities, in case the reader needs to be hit over the head with a sledgehammer to get the point.  Not all authors have to be quite so explicit about it.

As we noted, there are plenty of books and pamphlets to suggest character names, as well as sites like Behind the Names, BabyNameWizard, or Nameberry.  The pamphlets have become a bit more international over the years:  today’s versions contain names from more countries and languages than they used to.  This can help us avoid what you might call “WASP Name Syndrome,” in which all the names tend to be blandly Anglo-Saxon.

Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel

Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel

Consider, for example, early super-heroes, who tended to have white-bread names like Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Bruce Wayne, Barry Allen—not to mention the compulsively alliterative Marvel characters like Reed Richards, Peter Parker, Sue Storm, Bruce Banner…  We see at least a little more cultural variety these days, even if it’s still hard to shake the alliteration, as with the current Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan.

We’re still in pretty familiar territory when we visit the realm of the historic, or faux-historic—legendary figures living in real or imagined ancient times.  In the Arthurian tales we get ordinary-sounding names like, well, Arthur, as well as less common names (at least at this point in history) like Lancelot, Galahad, Tristan and Isolde, which may at least be familiar through repetition.  An author who wants to be (perhaps) historically more accurate as well as exotic can go for Celtic-style spellings:  Bedwyr instead of Bedivere, for example.  I’ve seen such imaginative renditions of “Guinevere” that you can get halfway through the book before you realize who the author is talking about.  (“Gwenhwyfar,” anyone?)

The Semi-Fantastic

We can do the same thing in F&SF—name our hero Luke, our wizard Ben, pedestrian names like that.  We may want the effect of the plain, traditional name for a particular character—for example, to suggest homeliness or familiarity.  (“His real name is Obi-Wan, but I know him as Ben.”)  This is fine if the story is set, say, twenty years from now, when you’d expect names to be relatively unchanged.  But it’s harder to justify—to make believable—if we’re thousands of years in the future, or in a completely separate alternate world, as with much heroic fantasy.

Note this can also be true in SF:  Star Wars looks futuristic, but we’re clearly asked to dissociate ourselves from any specific connection to the present when we’re told, “Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away…”  The curious reader is likely to wonder, how did these people happen to come up with exactly the same names we use, even without any common (recent) history or heritage?

Pilgrimage: The Book of the People, coverIn Zenna Henderson’s stories of The People, refugees from another planet come to Earth and struggle to fit in.  The stories are excellent, but the names sometimes give me pause.  In a story set on the home planet, before they’ve had any contact with Earth, the characters have names such as David, Eve, and Timmy—as well as the less familiar Lytha and ‘Chell (Michelle?).  Why so similar to common Terrestrial names?

Or take the hobbits.  Alongside Sam, Bob, and Rosie we have characters like Frodo, Bilbo, Meriadoc and Pippin.  Tolkien, the master linguist, can explain this—exhaustively (see Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings).  From a narrative point of view, the name-mixture gives us a sense of earthy rustic culture, but also of something a little different from Merrie Olde England.  Tolkien succeeds by being both quaint and quirky.

I’m less sympathetic to George R.R. Martin, who seems determined to give his characters in A Song of Ice and Fire names that are mostly familiar, but misspelled.  If we’re going to have people named Eddard, Catelyn, and Rickard, why not just call them Edward, Cathleen, and Richard—or are we expected to believe that languages in Westeros evolved in almost exact parallel to ours, but not quite?  (I have the same problem with the pseudo-Latin spells in Harry Potter—if you’re going to use Latin, just do it, don’t fake it—though I recently read an article by someone who’s examined Rowling’s quasi-Latin more closely than I and is more forgiving.)

Inventing Fantasy Names

If we’re going for traditional semi-medieval high fantasy, we may want names that are somewhat familiar, but have an antique ring to them.  How do I come up with a fitting title for the mighty barbarian I just rolled up for Dungeons and Dragons?  There are a number of tried-and-true approaches.  As it turns out, TV Tropes has a gallery of naming tropes that cover much of the territory (there’s a list-of-lists at Naming Conventions).

A descriptive name picks out some distinguishing feature:  Erik the Red, Catherine the Great.  Or Charles the Bald, or Pepin the Short, if I’m aiming for humorous or mundane rather than grand and dramatic.  If we don’t like “the,” we can fix on a name like Blackbeard.  Or Bluebeard.  (TV Tropes summarizes the pattern as Captain Colorbeard.)

Naming someone by place of origin (especially in place of a last name) also has a healthy yeomanlike sound to it.  I fondly recall a sturdy D&D character I named John of Redcliff.  A lot of ordinary last names, like Lake or Hill or Rivers, probably started out that way.  If the background allows for it, we can vary the effect by using French (de) or German (von) or other languages’ equivalents.

Occupations also gave us a lot of familiar last names.  “William the Farmer” (to distinguish him from the three other Williams in the village) easily becomes “William Farmer.”  Some of these are less obvious than others:  we may not recall that “sawyer” is what you call someone who wields a saw.

Names that indicate one’s parents—patronymics and matronymics—occur in many languages.  The English have their Josephsons and Richardsons, the Russians their Petrovs and Ivanovnas.

Random alphabet diceScorning these expedients, we can also strike off into the unknown by inventing a name purely from scratch, just for its sound.  This can produce semi-random results—but not entirely random, since speakers of a given language will tend toward combinations of letters and sounds that “make sense” in their language.  TV Tropes’ Law of Alien Names makes some interesting observations about how writers in different genres often approach name generation.

A doctor friend of mine, feeling he wasn’t up to the task of coining a lot of names, used a novel expedient in his D&D campaign:  he used the names of drugs.  This strategy works surprisingly well as long as you stick to obscure pharmaceuticals, which often seem to have been named by plucking letters out of the air (“erenumab”) or by phonetically respelling a chemical term (“Sudafed”).  On the other hand, a fierce warrior character named “Xanax” is going to create some cognitive dissonance for those who know the term in question.

A Variety of Effects

Different writers take different approaches to naming, which contribute to the distinctiveness of their worlds.

At the extreme end of systematic invention stands Tolkien, who once said that he invented his stories and realms only as a place to put his invented languages.  His names add noticeably to the integrity of his imagined world; they hold together so well because they really were derived from a number of separate, fully-developed languages.  We have a pretty good idea whether a name is hobbitish, elven, or dwarven from the sound alone.

Llana of Gathol, coverOr take Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom (Mars) stories.  Martian heroes and heroines (especially the heroines) tend to have relatively graceful names:  Dejah Thoris, Gahan of Gathol (a place-reference name), Carthoris, Llana.  Male supporting characters and savage green Martians are tougher-sounding:  Tars Tarkas, Mors Kajak, Kantos Kan, Xodar.  Villains’ names are still less graceful:  Phor Tak, Tul Axtar, Luud, U-Dor.  There’s no clear linguistic background for the names, but there’s enough commonality to give us a sense that Barsoomian nomenclature does hold together on a cultural basis.

Telzey Amberdon, book coverThe far future of SF writer James Schmitz yields a completely different style of naming.  Rather than being mellifluously Elvish, like Galadriel or Aragorn, or barbarically guttural, like Tars Tarkas, Schmitz’s names strike me as quintessentially American:  with a contemporary English sound and a sort of casual feel—yet unfamiliar enough to remind us we’re not in Kansas any more.  Recurring character Telzey Amberdon is a good example.  “Telzey,” with the diminutive –ey ending, sounds like a nickname somebody today might bear, but as far as I know, no one actually does.

This laid-back style is characteristic of Schmitz’s Federation of the Hub.  The names have a familiar contemporary sound, but they aren’t actually familiar.  The first names also tend to give few gender clues—which might be related to the fact that Schmitz stories often featured strong female leads.  Nile Etland and Heslet Quillan, along with the single-named Captain Pausert and Goth of The Witches of Karres or Iliff and Pagadan of Agent of Vega, all sound like people we might run into on any street—until we bypass the familiarity of sound and realize we’ve never heard these names before.  The names give Schmitz’s stories a unique feel.

Consistency

We can see how the names help establish the mood and ambiance of a story.  It says something about The Lord of the Rings that it contains both Gandalf the Grey and Freddy Bolger.  As with other aspects of worldbuilding, the names contribute to the “willing suspension of disbelief” when they help us feel the believable solidity of a consistent background—even if it’s a consistency that includes species or cultural variation.

TV Tropes lists a number of ways anomalies can crop up.  There’s “Aerith and Bob,” where familiar conventional names are mixed in unaccountably with unusual ones.  If a particular character’s name is unlike any of the others, we have “Odd Name Out.”  Using a mix of Earthly languages as sources for names gives us “Melting-Pot Nomenclature”—which may be justified if we envision a future in which today’s nations and ethnic groups have intermixed, as in H. Beam Piper’s future history.

The most thoroughgoing way of establishing a solid background for your names is Tolkien’s:  invent your own languages.  But few of us have the time, patience and talent for that kind of detail.  In practice, we don’t need to go that far.  It’s possible to do the same thing on a small scale by starting from the grass roots:  come up with an interesting name or two and decide to emphasize certain sounds or forms for that language’s words, inventing the rules and common elements (like “de” or “von”) as we go along.

However writers may go about the business of naming, we can appreciate the distinctive flavor given to their stories by how they choose names for their “children”—and if we’re so inclined, we can try out that creative wordplay for ourselves.

Strangeness

One of the specialties of science fiction—and to some extent fantasy—is to evoke a sense of strangeness.  In dealing with the alien, the cosmic, that which is far away in space or time, SF can make us feel we are encountering something that passes the limits of our knowledge or understanding.

This isn’t as easy as it looks.

The Used and the Unusual

Since at least the original Star Wars (1977), it’s been good practice to portray a “Used Future.”  Star Wars gave us a world full of beaten-up, grimy equipment that looked as if it had been duct-taped together.  This is generally a good technique.  It adds realism.  We feel at home in a world where everything is not perfectly cleaned and aligned; it’s like where we actually live.  There’s a sense of familiarity.

One opposite to the “used future,” of course, is the kind of earlier SF movie that was full of shiny, spotless spaceships and immaculate gizmos.  But the sense of familiarity also has its own opposite:  the thrill of unfamiliarity.

One way the challenge arises is with extraterrestrials.  Suppose a story has us meeting intelligent aliens.  If they seem just like us—“rubber-forehead aliens”—they won’t be convincing.  We expect something from another world to be different.  The writer or director has to show creatures, technologies, behaviors that are unlike anything we’ve seen on Earth.

Escher: Wallpaper CaveYet these things must also be believable.  Something that simply looks random or arbitrary, like an abstract swirl of colors, won’t convince us we’re seeing a real thing at all.  How do we thread the needle between the too-familiar and the unintelligible?

Just Alien Enough

Natural laws do enforce certain constraints on physical objects.  But other characteristics are a matter of custom, design choices, or aesthetics.  To show something convincingly alien, we need to know the difference.

Alien ship from movie ArrivalSometimes a single feature can be odd enough to alert us that we’re “not in Kansas any more.”  The alien ship that appears in the movie Arrival looks strange at once, because it’s smaller at the bottom than at the top.  It looks as if it’s upside-down or sideways. Not the way we’d build, yes.  But is it physically impossible?  Nope.  The ship isn’t on the ground, balanced implausibly on a narrow end.  It’s floating in the air.  This not only frees the ship from the usual need for wheels or other supports; it also introduces a second, subtler strangeness.  When we humans land somewhere, we expect to land, to set ourselves down securely on a surface.  These folks seem quite comfortable floating just above the ground.

A classic example is Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.  A massive spacecraft—a spinning O’Neill cylinder—enters the solar system, apparently inert.  A human crew matches course to explore it before its hyperbolic orbit takes it out into interstellar space again.  The ship begins to “come alive” around them—but there’s no sign of intelligent life aboard.  The explorers find one strange and amazing feature after another.  The purpose of some becomes clear:  the long, shallow rectangular valleys turn out to be immense lights that illuminate the interior.  But they never find out the reasons for many other objects.  In the end they have to cut loose from the vessel, letting it go on its mysterious way.

Rendezvous with Rama interior illustrationClarke’s mastery of clear detail—how the airlock doors open, for instance—gives us the necessary sense of realism.  But leaving many things mysterious evokes the sense of mystery and wonder that is among the most distinctive experiences in science fiction.  The unfamiliar is clearly and concretely depicted, but the purpose remains obscure.

(Parenthetically, I advise paying no attention at all to the dreadful sequels Gentry Lee wrote to Rama under Clarke’s direction.  They make the classic mistake of erasing the mystery without replacing it with anything at all interesting.  As with certain other sequels, the only thing for a conscientious reader to do is declare them non-canonical and pretend they never happened.)

For another Clarke treatment, remember 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  The mundane and even humdrum character of the long space voyage makes the psychedelic sequence at the end feel even weirder than it is in itself.

Sufficiently Advanced Technology

Extraterrestrials need not be involved.  Distance in time or space, and the concurrent advances in technology, can also provide a good foundation for the sense of strangeness.  (It was, after all, Clarke’s Third Law that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

Among the numerous virtues of David Brin’s Hugo-winning novel Startide Rising is that sense of entering a new and unaccountable world.  His Earthly spaceship crew of “uplifted” dolphins, with their small group of human companions, use advanced techniques that are still recognizable to us.  But they’re dealing with galactic cultures that draw on hundreds of millions of years of accumulated science.  The results can be mind-boggling.  One species, for example, travels by using a captive creature that creates portals “by the adamant power of its ego—by its refusal to concede anything at all to Reality.”  This isn’t your grandmother’s hyperdrive.

Toy stack of ringsThe body of another species, the Jophur, consists of a stack of distinct rings, like a child’s toy.  The Brothers of the Ebony Shadows employ a probability weapon that sends out “waves of uncertainty.”  The fact that these species are nonhuman is incidental to the fact that their immense background of far-advanced science lets them use techniques that seem to surpass our understanding.

For a purely human example, let’s look at Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars.  (Clarke really had the knack for this sort of thing.)  The main character, who bears the pedestrian name of Alvin, lives in Diaspar, the last city on Earth, billions of years in our future.  The city’s structure does not erode or decay; it’s maintained by “eternity circuits” according to the model held in its master computers.  The people do not die in a conventional sense.  After living for a thousand years, each individual walks back into the Hall of Creation and is dissolved—but is also retained in the memory circuits, to be rematerialized eons later.  Thus the population of the city is always changing, but the individuals continue.  And that’s only the beginning . . .

The City and the Stars, illustration

Exotic Ways of Life

Technology is one thing; behavior is another.  The City and the Stars does a terrific job of imagining how the society of Diaspar is shaped by the extraordinary conditions under which its people live.

When I read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, it was billed as ‘military science fiction’—but it’s nothing like the general run of military SF.  The six factions in the story make use of technologies that create real-world effects based on “formations” of people and their consensus beliefs.  Much of the plot revolves around a revolt based on “calendrical heresy”—which is just what it sounds like:  deviation from the standard calendars.  In Lee’s world, calendrical uniformity isn’t just a matter of convenience, but of crucial importance.  The resulting society is correspondingly peculiar.  Reading the story makes you feel as if you’re constantly being knocked sideways.

Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time combines present-day characters with those living in a city one hundred trillion years in the future.  The far-future people consist of “noötic” or virtual mass, are defended by “reality generators,” and are trying to fight a cosmic entity that’s trying to destroy the universe by disintegrating its history, acting backward through time.  The present-day people in mundane Seattle keep us grounded, but trying to understand the end-of-time characters and what they are doing requires a constant stretching of the imagination.

Strangeness and Wonder

The sense of strangeness or mystery is one form of the “sense of wonder” often used to characterize science fiction.  It takes us out of the mundane, makes us strain to conceive the inconceivable.  We’re often told that world travel expands our horizons by exposing us to different places and cultures.  Science fiction goes further:  it exposes us to ideas and places and people that don’t exist in the world at all.  At its limits, SF seeks to show us more than we can even comprehend.  The lack of reality is compensated by the greater impetus to go beyond our mental limitations.

To achieve that experience, we seem to need the right combination of the familiar and the exotic.  The weird stuff at the end of 2001 isn’t entirely successful, in my view:  it’s too strange.  Not only do we not understand what’s happening; we don’t quite feel there is anything to understand.  You have to read the book to figure out what’s going on.

But when we have enough groundedness to effect the “willing suspension of disbelief,” yet enough mystery to defeat (in part) our attempt to understand, the combination is uniquely fascinating.  As I noted at the beginning, this isn’t an easy balance to strike.  But the payoff makes it worth attempting.

How to Stage an Alien Invasion

We love our alien invasions.  Since The War of the Worlds (1897), poor Earth has suffered a steady stream of hostile arrivals—frequently from Mars, but recently from farther afield, as the possibility of other intelligent life in our solar system wanes.

We have one coming up this month, with the June 24 movie premiere of Independence Day:  Resurgence, a sequel to one of the more successful invasions of the last twenty years.  It seems like a good time to look closely at our opponents.

Footfall, a 1985 novel by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle (still available in print), is not only a great yarn, but a textbook model of how to write a modern invasion story.  We can look at it as a test case, like an existence proof in mathematics:  What kinds of conditions have to be fulfilled for a believable alien invasion, given what we now know about other planets?

 

Let’s define the target.  We’re talking about the good old classic invasion story, where the bad guys show up in person, make a direct assault, and we beat them.  That isn’t the only possibility.  There are other variants, such as infiltration, or scenarios where the Earthlings lose and end up a subject species.  But let’s look at what premises make a triumphant Independence Day-style plot viable.

 

It was easy for Wells.  His relatively nearby Martians could fire off a series of cannon shells, more or less, to land on Earth, break out their tripods, and mount their campaign.  Wells’ tour de force ending, of course, has the Martians beaten not by human opposition, but by humble bacteria.  (Arguably the best moment in the original Independence Day is when Jeff Goldblum realizes we can best the enemy by using a contemporary analogue of the Wellsian microbes—a computer virus.)

But modern invaders have to come from a greater distance.  Regrettably, none of the plausible abodes of life in the solar system have panned out.  Gone are old-time SF’s sweltering jungles of Venus, the canal-crossed deserts of John Carter’s Mars.  Until we’re ready for an attack by potential microbes from Europa, or hypothetical floating denizens of Jupiter’s atmosphere—neither of which, if they exist, have shown any signs of capability for interplanetary excursions—we have to look to interstellar sparring partners for a really good invasion.

This intensifies a long-standing problem with invasion stories.  If they got here, and across the interstellar gulfs at that, their technology must be literally light-years ahead of ours.  How can we expect to beat critters with such vastly advanced technology?  The balance of power is inherently skewed against us.

Paired with this is the question of motivation.  Why are they here?  What do the invaders want that would drive them to come all the way to Earth for it?

This is the easiest place for invasion stories that aren’t built on sound science to go astray.  We need only mention the 1983 TV mini-series “V,” which, though it had many admirable aspects, fell sadly short on the science side.  V gives not one, but two, implausible motives for the seemingly-benevolent Visitors.  They’re here to steal Earth’s water—as if there weren’t vast amounts of ice scattered around our solar system, and probably most other systems, for the taking.  And they’re here to eat us; apparently not only are humans compatible with a completely alien biology, but we’re a tastier treat than more edible and obtainable animals.  Sensible extraterrestrials need a better reason to traipse across the light-years than a local hamburger shortage.

 

Niven & Pournelle’s epic adventure handles both these questions so beautifully that it might have been plotted specifically to answer them.

Our not-quite-friendly visitors, the fithp (the singular is fi’), arrive in a large interstellar vessel, which launches smaller ships to conduct the attack.  Why are they here?  They’re looking for Lebensraum — living space.  The fithp have been exiled from their homeworld as the result of a conflict among factions—like the Protectors in Niven’s novel Protector.  They need a new place to live.  Among other things, this means “defeat is not an option”:  they can’t go back.  That ups the stakes.

But this exile premise also solves some of the balance-of-power problems.  The fithp’s resources are strictly limited.  There won’t be any reinforcements.  They can’t bring anything more from their homeworld.  All we have to do is defeat this batch of opponents, and we win.

Niven & Pournelle strengthen this limitation on the aliens, and incidentally increase scientific plausibility, by making their mother ship Message Bearer a slower-than-light vessel — a Bussard ramjet.  Their journey takes decades.  This distances the fithp even further from any potential homeworld support.  The authors also use it to introduce another twist:  there’s dissension between the space-born fithp, on one hand, and those who lived on their homeworld and are now awakened from suspended animation, on the other.  This division becomes important as the plot develops.

Without having to account for faster-than-light travel, Niven & Pournelle can give the fithp technology that isn’t too far ahead of our own.  Human numbers—and political, psychological, social characteristics—can make up for the technological imbalance.

In addition, the fithp don’t fully understand their own technology.  They’ve learned a lot of it from records left by their Predecessors, rather than developing the science themselves. This makes them less able to innovate.  By contrast, the humans’ response is a masterpiece of improvisation.  We make the best of what we have.  This, too, helps even the scales.  (Lesson for humans:  Continue fostering that STEM education.)

 

In the course of this worldbuilding, Niven & Pournelle give us fully fleshed-out aliens, with a coherent culture and society, understandable but different from our own — not an easy task.  Among other things, the fithp are sympathetic characters.  They are people, not just faceless attackers.  We see events from their viewpoints as well as our own.  This makes the story not only more believable, but more interesting.

 

The original Independence Day scores modestly on these two plausibility counts.  Motivation:  The aliens travel the stars like locusts, stripping planets of their resources.  No details are given, but the basic idea is not unreasonable, particularly in light of contemporary environmental concerns.  Balance of power:  We’re hopelessly behind in technology—but the aliens’ laziness (using our own satellites for signaling), Goldblum’s bright idea, and a captured alien ship get us (barely) over the hump of the willing suspension of disbelief.

We’ll see shortly how these premises play out in the Independence Day sequel—applying the Niven & Pournelle standard.