Alienate Your Audience
Hot on the heels of Halloween, it’s NaNoWriMo. I’m not participating this year, I haven’t since I did it in the first year of university and flopped out like a slapped catfish about 25K words or so into a hack-kneed fantasy story. I realised didn’t have enough to force the thing to grow a pair of legs and walk. When I start asking a lot of questions that I don’t have the answers for, then I know I’ve not planned well enough. Some can write by the seat of their pants, leaving a trail of ashen ink-marks as they scrawl their way forwards in a frenzy of plot twists and drama. If NaNo has taught me anything, it’s that I ain’t one of those people. Plus all the reading and work for my courses was getting in the way. Priorities, yeah? Anyway, to move onto something tangentially related to both Halloween and NaNoWriMo, let’s take a look at alien psychology.
Characters with wildly unusual thought patterns are interesting challenge, both to a writer and the reader. Usually found in the realms of fantasy and science fiction, entirely non-human entities present the opportunity to explore a psyche radically outside the normal spectrum of everyday human thought. Alien psychology can be used with devastating efficacy in less fantastical narratives, posing a frame for exploring topics such as mental health as with Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.
Creating an authentically alien perspective is easy to ignore, however. Primarily because it’s not an easy thing to do. How many times have you seen a science fiction movie where the guy with a fin on his head and six pairs of eyes expresses similar viewpoints to Bill at the pub? The effect is worse when it’s something that isn’t even physically humanoid and yet seems to operate on an entirely human level. Not everything needs to think outside of a human framework, and it’s very much dependent on aim and story as whether you start to scuttle down a xenofiction-esque route. That said, it often seems like a missed opportunity when it is skipped over, not least because it throws up some interesting responses when you do present an non-human perspective to an audience.
As expected, it’s difficult to connect with alien psyches. The A Novel Idea podcast has had a few novels with characters that fall outside the realms of general human perspective and they’ve never failed thrown up some interesting responses and discussion. The one that emerges without fail is the question of connection and it’s particularly pronounced if the effect belongs to a point of view or central character. Back when we were reading The Vegetarian there were a couple of reservations when it came to getting to grips with Yeong-hye’s trauma. Han Kang’s character poses a uniquely portrayed brand of alien psychology and perspective that is effective enough to stand up under closer scrutiny.
It’s not surprising that presenting a reader or audience with a a fundamentally remote psyche can reduce their willingness or ability to engage with it. However, if you want to portray that alien perspective then pulling your punches will only ever weaken the impact. And it’s precisely that impact which will make them remember your character, whether they want to or not. I’ve found that when starting with an inherently inaccessible concept for a character or setting, an attempt to humanise it will only create a sense of disconnection, detracting from the experience and failing to evoke the response desired. Then everybody loses. Your audience will approach the scene expecting something strange, but if they are given something familiar then the effect feels at best artificial; at worst, condescending.
I fond this was the case with Laline Paull’s The Bees. The idea of a bee in a hive is far removed from my experience as a human in a city. As a result I was intrigued by the prospect of a drastic perspective shift. When Flora 717 presented her insectoid world to me in the style of my own human world, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. Whether I’d been able to connect with a bee drone or not wasn’t the point – just getting to experience a world through that lens was enough of a draw.
Alien psyche’s are often used as a means of keeping the audience at a distance. Giving people a look at something difficult to understand but never giving enough detail, never allowing them to get close enough to understand it. That deliberate alienation of the audience allows them to form an abstract idea of an encounter, but never provides enough information to categorise or classify it. As a result, the audience’s alienation is projected onto the scene they are presented with. Arguably Han Kang does this with The Vegetarian. Our time in Yeong-hye’s head is limited and presented in second person, thereafter relegated to other character’s perceptions of her. I would, however, argue that we are given enough direct exposure to build up a far more solid picture of her than is usual, despite the fact that we are always one level removed from her perspective.
We often like to think of logic and reason as a singular route to a singular truth or reality. We’d be wrong. Truth is often up for interpretation. Any interpretation of a truth brings with it multiple means of arrival: Even if the endpoint is the same, the journey there can vary drastically. A well crafted outside perspective can present an audience with a line of logic or reason that they can follow, but will instinctively recoil from the further they travel down that path. Doesn’t have to be a literal alien, we’ve all heard arguments that seemed coherent, but just different enough to make us wonder why we were so wary of them. There doesn’t even have to be an end point or an explanation if you’re writing fiction, but there does have to be a series of connected points that suggest a purpose or line of reason. This was what was gave Yeong-hye’s character weight. While we never get to directly connect with her, we’re left in no doubt that something is going on in her mind. Without that crucial suggestion of continuity you don’t have a personality so much as an incoherent cluster of anecdotes.
When it gets right down to the bone, nobody is expected to connect, on any great level, with something that they don’t quite recognise. If you manage it, congratulations. Also maybe the says something about you. I’d judge, but I’m the guy writing about writing non-standard psyches so for the moment I’ll chew my tongue. Regardless, whichever way they’re portrayed, it’s important that they are authentic. If that alienates your audience then you’ve probably done it right.