Monday, March 3, 2014

Guest Post by Derick William Dalton (Houses of Common Blog Tour)

A few weeks ago I attended the Life, the Universe, and Everything sci-fi and fantasy symposium in Provo, Utah. It was completely worth two days in the car to get there. I was a panelist for one of the sessions, and a lady in the audience asked a question that kept me thinking.

“I know the characters in my novel. I know the conflict and the plot. But I don't have a world in which to put them.”

I interpret literally the concept that art imitates life. Some of my best ideas have come from one of my college textbooks, Invertebrates by Brusca and Brusca. That book makes the Mos Eisley cantina look like retired white folks playing bingo. Sometimes I reread it just to overload my brain with weirdtasticness.

As this lady asked about creating a world for her fantasy series, I pondered a phrase commonly used in biology. Form follows function. If some part of an organism looks like it should perform a certain job, likely that's exactly what it does. It holds true for the bizarre appendages and embryology stages of arthropods. Though more abstract, behavior is such a formation. In mammals, it's a product of the frontal cortex of the brain. It's all about neurotransmitters and receptors and genetics. The function of which, speaking broadly, is to help an organism survive and reproduce. (A high school student once told me my biology class was boring. “Why?” I asked. “All we're talking about is food and sex.” He paid closer attention after that.) In humans, behavior is also involved in the other facets of our well-being. Could an author view her characters as an extension of the world's personality?

Here's a real life example.

Bonobos, Pan paniscus and formerly known as pygmy chimpanzees, are native to an area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It's a lush and fertile environment. They're a peaceful species, and are too busy mating to fight. Chimpanzees, P. troglodytes, are native to other areas, many of which are dry and harsh. They're mean. Males patrol the borders and kill other chimpanzees. They backstab each other for dominance. Primatologists hypothesize the link between these behaviors and habitat is causal rather than coincidental.

So, we just need to invent ethnic stereotypes and reverse-engineer a world from them, right? Why not? But it needs to be more interesting than that, because there can be so many variables. After living in Canada, I can't go back without the accent following me for days. Being there changed me, and more than just knowledge of what ten degrees Celsius feels like or the first verse of “O, Canada.” I was only there six months. What about an entire life? As a physician assistant, every day I see kids whose healthy or unhealthy habits are identical to those of their parents or grandparents. For an author, the bonus is that the more entrenched a pattern of behavior, the bigger the payoff for the character and the reader when it's overcome.

What if that pattern goes as deep as geology or history or DNA? Now we're talking heroic.

This brings up the question of personal decision. A fun difference between mythic heroes, tragedies, comedies, and other forms of literature is the question of fate. Destiny. A character in book two of my Houses of Common series (Meaner Sort, out later this summer) pondered this question. She's an alien and head of security for her people's ambassador to the United States. She suffers setbacks in the form of failing to prevent an assassination, helplessly discovering xenocide, and worrying about the safety of her loudmouth brother. Leaving a hotel, she sees a holographic rendering of Paul Gaugin's painting Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?, and reflects on the Ambassador's attack. “We come from the genes of our forebears, Monsieur Gauguin,” she whispers. “We are slaves of our instincts with a certain leeway of behaviors we must control or others will do so for us. But going where?”

I wish I would have thought of all this when that lady at the symposium asked her question. I guess that's why I write novels instead of run for office.

About the Author:

Mr. Dalton is a professional student who has taken an occasional hiatus for such frivolities as teaching high school science, residential construction, and treating patients as a physician assistant. In a moment of rebellion from graduate school stress, his brain refused to pay attention until certain stories were written down. He lives with his wife and children, and is planning a mountain bike trip on the moon.

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