Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"Deepening in" to a scene of oppression

How many of you have read, or written, a story which begins with a scene of oppression? I think there must be a whole lot out there, particularly since righting wrongs and freeing oppressed people can be really exciting in a story. Generally speaking these scenes will show the oppressed interacting with their oppressors, being insulted indirectly or directly, or even being physically assaulted. These scenes often strike me as very broad-brush in approach. They are extreme. I'm not trying to say that oppressed peoples never experience extreme oppression - far from it. What I am trying to say is that because this is the kind of scene we are accustomed to, it can be done too simplistically, using default values, and therefore ring false.

If you've read my blog for any length of time, you have probably heard me talk about conveying what is normal. Normal is the hardest setting to establish, because people typically don't notice the things that are normal in their lives. However, the normal is extremely important, because unless we establish what it is, we can't accurately express to the reader the significance of departures from it. In the first chapter of For Love, For Power, my young nobleman Tagaret goes to a musical concert, which he does quite often. He sets up its emotional significance for him, and then is immediately able to talk about departures from his expectations, like the larger number of guests, and the annoying intrusion of an official speech before the concert starts. These departures are nonetheless part of the normal, so that when something really terrible happens, readers have something to compare with Tagaret's extreme shock. Without the initial norm, the shock is robbed of significance.

And that's the problem I see with an opening that features extreme oppression. Is this the norm? we ask. Or is this a departure from it? How can we know?

Therefore, as I start my next Varin novel (temporary title, Fires of Change, Book 1) among the undercaste, I'm looking to do something like the same thing. I want to start with something normal, and then have the departures from that norm become more and more extreme, so that their significance can be perceived more effectively.

This is harder than it looks, so I thought I'd tell you about some of my discovery process.

The main character in scene 1 is a man named Akrabitti Corbinan, 29 years old, who works as a trash collector. I therefore thought I should start with him on the job. However, his job is not where he's going to get himself in trouble. In a multi-caste world like Varin, it's really important to show inter-caste interaction from the very beginning so that you get a sense that the castes do interact. On the other hand, Corbinan would almost never find himself having to interact with someone in the street. The undercaste are avoided, more than anything else. Besides which, the inciting event I'm driving him towards has nothing to do with meeting Highers in the street, so that option is out.

He can, however, interact with his bosses, who are members of Higher castes. The garbage services are run by the government, which means that Corbinan's boss is a bureaucrat and a member of the Imbati servant caste. Knowing this, I thought maybe he should have an interaction with his boss, so I drafted a scene in which he was going to get his pay from his boss, and the boss acted as though he didn't know Corbinan, and then underpaid him.

It wasn't right, for several reasons. First, it set up the boss as too much of an antagonist. We're not even close to meeting the real antagonist yet. Second, how many of us get our pay directly from our bosses? And why would the boss put himself through meeting all of his employees every week? Even more important than that, the undercaste get paid in cash, but the Imbati make a point of avoiding cash money. Of course, I only figured this out after I'd drafted it and wasn't feeling right, and called up Janice Hardy to ask her advice (she saw the problem right away, bless her).

We decided I needed an intermediary from the Melumalai merchant caste (which is lower than the Imbati, only one rank higher than undercaste). A cashier.

At this point, things started coming together. Corbinan goes with his work crew to pick up his weekly pay from the cashier, and they are underpaid. It was important that there be a reason behind the underpayment - this is a working national system, and can't be subject to the whims of lowly cashiers. Even vindictive bosses have to track payroll, and would find other ways to be vindictive. Janice and I came up with the idea that there had been a piece of equipment that failed while one of the team members was using it, and therefore the entire team would have been docked as a penalty. This is a more realistic type of institutional injustice that requires absolutely no ill will on the part of the Imbati boss or the Melumalai cashier in order to make Corbinan's life miserable. The trash workers would have known this piece of equipment was on its last legs, and been passing it around like a hot potato (to use an Earthly simile) trying not to be the one using it when it finally broke. Corbinan wasn't the one who broke it, but one of his teammates (Basi) did, and was too embarrassed to tell the group, so they end up learning this at the pay window in front of the Melumalai.

They are all angry. However, they can't take their anger out on a Higher without facing unpleasant repercussions, so instead, they take it out on Basi who was unlucky enough to have broken the machine and then didn't tell them. Basi will respond by proposing to lodge a protest with the Imbati boss. However, Corbinan won't let her go, because he doesn't want her to get in trouble. This strengthens the sense that avoidance is the preferred method, and that the Higher the person, the scarier they are. It also helps Corbinan be a good guy, even though he's definitely on the rough side. By the time he's convinced her not to take the risk, the rest of the team has left in retaliation.

You may notice that I'm deliberately having the group be unfair to each other as a result of pressure coming from above. One of the things that took me ages to figure out is that the undercaste would prey on each other when they were desperate. So in order to make this chapter take one more step toward the extreme, I'm going to have Corbinan and Basi get attacked by a gang on the way home.

Let me stress that this kind of thing (a gang) can't be random or arbitrary. The societal underpinnings of the gangs have to be clear. The undercaste gangs are run by the occasional unscrupulous adult, but most of their members are people too young to hold down a job within the system, or who can't get a job for other reasons. They prey specifically on the trash workers, because the trash workers are paid in cash (prison workers are paid in food and clothes and housing). Corbinan used to be a member of a gang himself because he ran away from home to distance himself from his parents, who were crematory workers (who are disparaged even within the caste).

So at this point, after Basi has lost some of her money to the gang, there is a more serious problem: the team doesn't have enough money to pay rent for their shared apartment. Corbinan, who was helping Basi to fight off the gang on the way home, gets asked to teach her a lesson for putting all their housing in danger. He's not going to do that, but the two of them will hatch a scheme for him to go looking for a big stash of money. Imagine it like treasure hidden by Basi's family, and she's got the map but can't decipher it without Corbinan's help.

And there's (finally) our real inciting event, that takes Corbinan fully off the path of the normal.

Of course, it's fully possible that I'll still find something wrong with the scenario and have to change it again. But I did want to show how much thinking - thinking in layers - it took to get to a place where I felt like I was engaging real oppression. I'm trying to portray the kind of situation that doesn't require anyone to fling insults or to commit assaults. A situation based on avoidance, and institutional oppression, and desperation. I'm also going to be working hard going forward to keep these factors in play, because the kind of inequities that I want to draw attention to are the microagressions that so often slip beneath notice.

I hope you find my musings interesting.


  1. Loved this post. It totally made me rethink my WIP beginning scene that illustrates oppression. I've been reading your blog for years and still forgot to convey what was normal. Thanks for the reminder!


    1. Thanks, Jane! I'm glad it was helpful to you.

  2. Really nice article with some very good advice. I think that as spec fiction writers (especially adventurous fantasy or SF) we're often advised to "start with an action scene," yet I find that books that plunge me right into the middle of a fight or a tense/highly emotional social interaction, or yes, an incident of social or physical oppression can be hard to grasp. If you don't know who the protagonist really is or what's at stake, the reaction can be confusion, or even indifference.


    1. Thank you, E.L. I have also heard that advice, and sometimes it leads people down the wrong path. Tension yes, extreme no, is my approach. This is also because I'm working in a very different world where the stakes are not initially clear.