Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Loving the alien

For a long time now, I've been inside the head of my protagonist in The Way of The Kresh. Jeldon is outwardly very alien - a cross between mollusc, insect and crustacean physiology - but just how alien is the inside of his head? The answer is 'not very' and that's because it's really the only way I can use him to drive a story and still have that story understandable to a human reader. We can all create totally alien characters whose motivations and resulting actions are a complete mystery, but how satisfying would that be as a central feature of a sustained narrative? Not very, I suspect. So Jeldon has emotions and reactions that we can identify with, but those emotions and his personality have been constructed and affected by the society and environment he inhabits. Really what Jeldon is, is a foreigner; someone from another country where they do things differently, but someone who we still have enough points of reference in common with to be basically understandable.

If you want to be grand about the whole thing, you could say the Kresh society in the novel is a way of holding up particular mores that exist in our society for inspection. That's certainly been the case for a lot of SF, but it hasn't been my prime driver. Those societally discursive elements that are emerging as I write are a product of the situational tension I wanted to create for Jeldon early on to make him interesting to readers. That's a pretty cool thing and it seems to be supporting my emerging thesis that if you get the character right and sufficiently complex, a great many other elements of the story will emerge from that.

Your main character has to stand out. There has to be an immediate point of difference for the reader to latch on to. So, the Kresh society is very insular. While it exists within a loose collection of worlds that have trade ties - called the Lenticular - they prefer not to rely on or have much else to do with outsiders. Jeldon is different. He's one of the few Kresh to leave homeworld and travel to other planets. And he's the only Kresh ever to do it on his own. That instantly makes him an oddity in his own society and creates tension between him and others of his kind. It also provides him with opportunities that other Kresh do not have when the shit hits the fan.

The other reason why Kresh - other than Jeldon - don't travel off-world alone is that the Kresh share an empathic link with each other. There is an underlying worldmind, not a hivemind - they're not telepathic, but an underlying emotional patterning which is comforting to Kresh. They always know what the emotional temperature of their surroundings are, how they are viewed by others, how their words are received. Being somehow outside of that makes them uncomfortable. Not Jeldon. So he's considered strange. But that element of his psychic make up means that when the human-backed Hegemony invade homeworld and begin to systematically mutilate Kresh, removing the hood which provides this empathic link, then where most Kresh are unable to cope and commit suicide, Jeldon is already hardened to the loss, although that's not to say it doesn't deeply affect him.

One might think that would make Jeldon more attractive to his fellow Kresh. Here's someone that can keep it together when terrible things happen. But to keep the ball in the air and keep that dramatic tension going for Jeldon, Kresh have a deep mistrust of any physical deformity or injury among their kind. Those who are disabled by injury or birth are euthenased. Although Jeldon can still function even without his empathic hood, he is now seen as an outcast, someone that should be executed if they do not have the decency to commit suicide. This element of the novel, which was really just put in to create dramatic tension for Jeldon has assumed wider proportions within the story now, given the widespread acts of the Hegemony. Hating the disabled is okay within the framework of Kresh society (I know it's not really okay but we have to respect other cultures, don't we?), but when an external force comes in and disables the majority of the population, that framework must change or the society will fail. So a relatively simple character element has become one of the main conundrums of the story which must be resolved through the action. Everything's connected - which is how it should be.
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