One reason writers fail when setting their stories in a different world – in the past, in the present with a different metaphysics, in another galaxy — is by not digging deeply enough into what makes their world distinct. Any writer knows to change the technology their characters use, and the better ones manage to create a language with a different flavor to it. But to really put your readers into the heads of someone who lives in an alternate world, you need to change attitudes so deep that most people aren’t aware they’re there.
This morning’s author does well. The surface details are there, of course – the naming conventions of the narrator’s culture, the clay tablets, the reed boats. But notice too how comfortable WatchesEverything is with submitting to authority. He’s less abused by his teacher than other students, and he considers that a sign of favor. He hates and fears LovedOfGod, but he accepts that he has no choice about working for his family. While he’s not happy about any of this, he doesn’t have the sense of unfairness that someone modern would have in that situation. Since his decision involves possible danger to his village, he also has no hesitation in letting the village elders decide for him. Authority is a normal, accepted part of his life.
The piece includes some very nice period images as well – the sorts of metaphors that would naturally come to mind from someone in that culture. Seeing water buffalo as dreamy and distracted, for instance, or the terms of an agreement described as otters sliding on mud. The author also pays attention to all the senses. Clay tablets aren’t simply an awkward substitute for paper. They have a smell of their own, which a scribe might appreciate.
I found a few problems, as well. Like a lot of historical fiction writers, the author is apparently going for a language with a different feel and winding up at something that is simply stiff. Whatever language the characters are speaking, I’m sure it has contractions, so there’s no reason not to use standard, English contractions. The author relies a little too much on direct address, and sometimes gives into telling rather than showing – I’ve flagged these problems in my notes. And there were one or two places where the syntax got turned around for no reason apparent. You can give the impression of a language foreign by introducing a syntax alternate, but you need to be consistent about it.
But these problems – and a few other more routine ones – are easily fixed. And beneath them, the piece lets readers into the head of someone who lives a very different life from us.
And in case you believe this principle only applies to historical or science fiction, remember that to some extent, all characters live in their own world, with their own preconceptions and goals and understanding of life. The deeper you can dig into these individual worlds, the more your characters will come to life.