Hello, World: Creating Multilingual Settings

multilingual-content-strategyThere are over 6,500 living languages in the world today, from Mandarin Chinese (730 million+ native speakers) to Xipaya (3 native speakers), with about half the world’s population being multilingual. This immediately creates a challenge for humans navigating the world, as we inevitably come face to face with people who don’t share our language.

For about as long as humans have been traveling and trading and exploring, we have been tackling this challenge in a number of ways. We create trade languages, use pictures and gestures, create dictionaries, or throw technology at the problem (with varying degrees of success). If you’re writing a fantasy world, thinking about your language landscape is both an excellent vehicle for world-building, and a rich vein of comedy and conflict.

As always, I recommend starting with research. Obviously, constructed worlds require ‘research’ that mostly takes place within one’s imagination, but the real world is a great source of inspiration to get you started. Think about how the languages in your world are related, about how people move and trade, about how and when writing might have developed. Think about naming conventions, so that people and locations from different linguistic regions have coherent naming schemes (or a concrete reason why they don’t). And then think about the interplay between language and cultural philosophy.

It’s also up to you how to present multilingual conversations. There really isn’t a right or wrong answer, as long as your audience can follow the plot. Depending on your story structure, you may employ more than one of these approaches.

One option is to follow the point of view character, and refrain from translating words or sentences which they do not understand. For example:

Jennifer held out her map to the woman. “Am I close to Tasiilaq?”

The woman stepped away. “Tuluttut oqalutangilanga,” she said.

You can choose whether or not to italicize– although this is convention, there’s also some strong arguments against the practice.

Another is to telegraph language shifts in your dialogue tags. For example:

“I’m not sure about this,” Hanako said. She leaned towards Kenji, and switched back to Japanese. “I don’t trust him at all.”

If both your characters are speaking in a language other than the language in which you are writing (such as the Igbo speakers in Half of a Yellow Sun), you can render their dialogue predominantly in the language in which you are writing, but retain words which describe culturally specific objects, concepts or activities.

Finally, you can channel your inner Junot Diaz or Esme Wong and create a multilingual book without translation. Whilst you may lose in accessibility you may gain nuance of expression that is only possible in the languages in question (and the joy of multilingual readers), so if that feels like a good approach for your work, go to it.

Whether you’re writing about our world or a created one, embracing linguistic diversity gives you an amazing worldbuilding toolkit to really make your setting shine.

Not Touching, Can’t Get Mad: On Describing Body Language

body_language_gestureAlthough much of modern society is structured around written words, most human communication is not actually verbal. Words might be important, but we gather a huge amount of information about someone’s emotional state, level of sincerity, and general intent from tone of voice and from body language. This presents a potential challenge for people working in written media (obviously, radio conveys tone of voice, visual arts convey body language, and film does both).

My personal favorite method is to slip body language descriptions into dialogue tags. This avoids a repetitive parade of ‘said’ while still signposting who is speaking. It also allows us to convey tone and body language without breaking up the flow of a scene. For example:

“What happened with your boss?” Jose asked.

Tim looked down at his plate. “Nothing much.”

From that, most of us would deduce that Tim is lying, and that something bad went down, without any of the characters having to spell it out or use an internal monologue. The quick dialogue tag does the heavy lifting. In fact, deployed correctly, nods to body language and tone of voice can turn a bland verbal exchange into a very tense scene.

You can also give your characters distinguishing choices in how they move, which makes them stand out further to the reader.  It doesn’t have a be a specific repeated tic, though it certainly can be. Noting that someone usually slams down their coffee, whips doors closed, and stomps down stairs conveys a lot about someone’s demeanor. You might also have a character whose movements are limited– it’s worth giving thought to how they have modified their movements and body language in response.

It’s also extremely important to understand that while the use of body language and gesture is universal among humans, what body language and gestures track to which meanings vary wildly around the world. What is a perfectly sensible gesture in one culture can be confusing or offensive in another (for example, the ‘thumbs up’ that indicates approval in much of the West is an obscene gesture in large swaths of the Middle East and North Africa). Even the size of our ‘personal bubblevaries greatly between cultures.  If you’re writing a story about a culture (including a time period!) different from your own, or have a multicultural cast, triple-check this. (Travel guides, such as the ‘Culture Shock’ series, can be incredibly helpful for playing cross-cultural etiquette catch-up).

By collecting all these body language details and slipping them  judiciously into your writing, you can give your characters a more distinct personality, imbue your dialogue with further layers of meaning and conflict, and capture cultural differences to add realism.

No, I Won’t Shut Up About Rare Diseases: This Is Why

[Usually, this is a writing blog. But today it’s a soap box]


In case you’ve just emerged from the wilderness, the United States Congress is currently debating, like a crew of cheap Hollywood villains, whether or not millions of Americans should be allowed to access basic healthcare. Disability* advocates and our allies are out in force, which means that a bunch of concern trolls have crawled out from under their

bridges to shush us in the guise of offering helpful advice. Concern trolls, for those of you who have never encountered the species in the wild, are people who undermine and silence under the guise of, well, concern. They don’t want us to sit down and shut up because they’re abelist, they say. They simply don’t want us putting ourselves at risk by ‘oversharing’ our stories, or taking to the streets, or pretty much any other activism that shifts the conversation on disability and chronic illness from a hypothetical misfortune to be abstractly pitied towards the concrete challenges affecting the lives of actual human beings. In the case of invisible disabilities, which most rare diseases are, there is an additional pressure not just to shut up about disability and chronic illness in general, but to retreat further into invisibility and pretend our conditions do not exist.

On a practical level, this is utterly laughable. Many of us, myself included, can remain largely symptom-free, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need healthcare access or legal protection. It also belies how much effort goes into maintaining that symptom-free state. Just because we make it look like a cinch to schedule in doctor visits, pharmacy trips, adequate sleep, or any other additional needs we have into our lives doesn’t mean that work isn’t involved. Additionally, we cannot claim protection under the ADA unless we disclose our conditions to our employers; in some cases, we can actually be in trouble for failing to disclose our condition. Unless we commit to living the double life of a deep-cover agent, the people in our lives are going to know.

Furthermore, in the case of rare diseases, our best source of information is not doctors, but other patients. Many of us, myself included, had our metaphorical bacon saved by internet strangers who spoke up. Sharing our stories is literally our best route to build community, help others get the correct diagnosis, and find effective treatments. The medical system fails in the diagnostic process for 95% of rare disease patients. ‘Oversharing’, for us, isn’t some strange form of attention-seeking. It saves lives.

Finally, and most morally troubling, is that the concern trolls are asking for our cooperating in our own oppression. The concern troll logic is as follows:

  • People with disabilities are perceived as burdens on society, incompetent, and otherwise stigmatized. Genetic diseases are framed as life ruining.
  • If you, a productive, happy person with a rare disease, comes forward to spread hope and awareness, assholes who don’t like people with disabilities will be upset.
  • Therefore, you should pretend to be healthy and ‘normal’ and not challenge the perception that it’s possible to lead a fulfilling life with a rare disease.

If you still don’t get it, let’s try this:

  • Black people in the United States are discriminated against and profiled as more violent, less intelligent, etc.
  • High-achieving black people make racists upset and are targeted by the aforementioned racists.
  • Therefore, black people should avoid being in positions of power. For their own good.

If your name isn’t Jeff Sessions, reading that probably made you throw up in your mouth a bit. That’s the point.

Most us on Team Rare Disease got help from fellow patients whom we have never met. The argument that successful people with rare diseases should pull up the ladder and refuse to ‘pay it forward’ by re-sharing that lifesaving information is revolting. It asks us to be pointlessly selfish, to conceal valuable information and perpetrate shame and silence around chronic illness and disability for no discernible gain. It’s not as though my silence will save the Affordable Care Act or stop the murders of people with disabilities or advance medical research. The ‘shut up for your own good’ argument asks us not only to throw our compatriots under the bus for our own short-term gain (which is immoral enough) but to prioritize the desire of bigots to live in a bubble (in which ideas such as ‘people with disabilities have no quality of life’ go unchallenged) over the very concrete needs of people who could benefit from activism and awareness.

So my answer is no. I will not shut up. The only way to challenge the negative perceptions of people with chronic illness and disability is to speak up and tell our stories. We cannot let concern trolls take our voice away. I will continue to tell people that we on Team Rare Disease can love and achieve, that we do not have to put our lives on hold while passively waiting for a cure, that we want our rights and nothing less. I will continue to advocate not just for myself, but for the thirty million Americans with rare diseases, and the millions more who join us under the ‘disability’ umbrella.

Show me a historical example wherein a group of people improved their lot in life by quietly complying with their own oppression, and I’ll eat my shoe. So instead of sitting on my ass and hoping that medical system will magically get its act together or fascist governments will cease their attacks on healthcare access, I’ll see you in the (virtual) streets.
*’Disability’ is a remarkably diverse group united by common political aims. I was convinced by the inimitable Alice Wong that we have much to gain by uniting under this banner. My specific needs might be different than those of, say, a healthy dyslexic person or a wheelchair user or a cancer survivor, but we all rely on legal protection from the ADA and healthcare protection from the ACA and thus benefit from uniting under a shared label.

Explaining vs Excusing: Villains and the ‘Balanced Character’ Trap

a_complex_choice_by_ixilder“To be greatly and effectively wicked a man needs some virtue.”
— C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Unless you’re writing satire or writing about particular periods of history starring a real-life monster, you’re probably taking great pains to avoid writing a two-dimensional cackling villain who does bad deeds for the lulz.  (I’ve written before about some strategies for writing a dramatically evil villain who is still believable).

However, it’s very easy to swerve too far in the other direction and move from nuanced character development to actively making excuses for the villain’s behavior and squicking out your audience in the process. This is particularly likely to go wrong in historical fiction, where the insistence that everything must be morally ambiguous necessitates a twisting of fact around situations that have clear heroes and villains. But built-from-scratch villains can also fall victim to this trope (note that I say villain, rather than antagonist. This post concerns true ‘baddies’ rather than a character with positive goals and actions that happen to conflict with the protagonist’s goals and actions).

As I (and other, smarter people) have said before, the villain’s motivation needs to follow some internal logic in order to be believable, even if that logic is based on a faulty premise. But understanding someone’s behavior does not necessitate the narrative minimizing their villainy or offering their motivations as a mitigating factor. A ‘balanced’ or ‘believable’ villain does not need to be sympathetic or a morally ambiguous antivillain; their good qualities do not have to redeem them. In fact, a character can even have a sympathetic or relatable motivation and still terrify the audience with the means they choose to achieve what might seem, at first, like a reasonable end.

Western society has a habit of conflating  the possession of socially valued attributes–intelligence, determination, looks, wealth, and so on– with being a good person, and that having positive traits (at least in particular circumstances) means that this person cannot be capable of doing enormous evil. For evidence of this, look at any case where a popular celebrity is credibly accused of some wrongdoing, and a legion of fans react with ‘but they’re so talented, they couldn’t have possibly…’. (Heck, see everyone who defends their friends against founded accusations of antisocial behavior by saying ‘but he’s a good guy’ or ‘she’s always been nice to me.’).

One can’t control audience reactions. That’s part of letting your story out into the world. At the same time, it’s worth being mindful of how you develop your villains. There is a unique tragedy in seeing the potential which a villain threw away when they chose their path, but two much time wallowing in their Dark and Troubled Past is a recipe for romanticizing and excusing their actions. Let the villain be human, conflicted, and have the necessary skills to cause the protagonists real trouble; heck, let them have a sympathetic goal. But make sure the audience also sees that they had an opportunity to do good and turned away, either because they wanted to use ruthless methods to achieve an admirable goal, or because their goal in and of itself is harmful to others.

Diverse Media Roundup #1

I’m 110% of team #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #WeNeedDiverseMedia, so here’s my quick takes on movies, books, and TV I’ve been consuming. Recommendations for future roundups are very welcome.

Cleverman (TV series, live action, adult)
The story is set in a near-future dystopian Australia, where humans have made contact with Aboriginal mythological creatures called the Hairy People. One main character is an Aboriginal community leader fighting for Hairy People rights; the other has just been chosen (for mysterious reasons) as his peoples’ new Cleverman, a spiritual leader who negotiates conflicts between humans and the Dreamtime (the Aboriginal paranormal world).
Available on Netflix.

Moonlight (Movie,adult) 
Just go watch it. It’s gorgeous. Bring Kleenex.
Available on Amazon.

LegendQuest/ Las Leyendas (TV series, cartoon, children)
A psychic boy from a rural Mexican village is flung into an adventure when supernatural creatures attack his town and suck it into another dimension. There’s lots of world mythology,  football jokes, and a fun, loose art style. Although some Mexican characters are coded as Indigenous or European, the show could do a bit better on the diversity front, especially within the Mexican settings.
Available on Netflix.

Samurai Jack (TV series, cartoon, all ages)
For anyone nostalgic for Samurai Jack, the series returned last Saturday via Adult Swim. In spite of its surrealist bent, it showcases a variety of cultures with both respect and enthusiasm. Available online.

Representation vs Exploitation, Part IV: A Matter of Perspective

Writing characters who are different than ourselves in some way is a fundamental task of fiction. We get inside the minds of characters who might literally be aliens, and make their struggles compelling and accessible to the audience. But actually, the person writing the alien or the sea monster has a distinct advantage– they’re creating the character’s fictional perspective from scratch, devoid of the blinders we all have about the experiences of other humans around us.

As I’ve explained before, we all live with our own ingrained biases about how the world works. Most of the time, this allows us to navigate our lives with a minimum of effort as we glide through familiar routines and cultural assumptions. In writing fiction, especially when writing a character whose life experiences are radically different from our own, this ease can be a trap if we rely on ‘truthiness’ and assumptions over actual research and actual conversations with people who have lived the experiences you’re writing about.

Another, subtly different, pattern I’ve noticed in both fiction and news reporting is the assumption that ‘we’re all the same inside’ (the race-specific variant being ‘I don’t see color’). Besides the fact that each and every human has a unique personality and set of experiences, there are also deep differences in how we view the world due to the culture in which we were raised. Ignoring these differences when writing will deprive your characters of believably for members of the group you’re writing about and may also leave them seeming bland and false to others.

Once again, I’m not suggesting that we never write outside our own experiences. That would be dull and counterproductive. Rather, we all need to think critically about our motivations and techniques when we write the ‘other’. That we write with empathy and a desire to tell an authentic story that introduces the audience to fresh ideas and experiences,  rather than regurgitate comforting stereotypes and narratives that coddle and affirm the perceptions of the privileged.

Other people do not exist so that we can ogle and exploit their life stories, their cultural heritage for our own amusement. If you’re writing out of an exploitative impulse– ‘[Ethnicity X ]men/women are so sexy’ or ‘disability makes the story really poignant’ or ‘[racial slur] are exotic and being half [YIKES RACIAL SLUR] makes my MC interesting’ or something similar*– please step away from your writing tools for a moment and reconsider. Writing about people who have experiences different from our own is inevitable; writing about difference badly is highly avoidable if one applies uses both research and empathy. Sometimes you’re not the right person to tell a particular story, and that’s okay. Creativity is a renewable resource. So go find your story, and tell it.


*These are almost verbatim from a writing forum I used to frequent, with appropriate deletions.