Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why Nouns Matter, part 2: objects and labels

Here I am, back to tackle common nouns. I'm going to take two angles on this (though they are hard to extricate from each other): first, to talk about choosing objects that will appear in a story, and second, to talk about labels for objects.

When people talk about putting "details" in your story, a lot of it has to do with nouns. (Adjectives are also implicated, but we'll hit the nouns first.) What do you put in the room with your protagonists when they are speaking together? Each noun you pick makes a large statement - first, a declaration that the object you've chosen is worth paying attention to (and is therefore important) and then possibly several more statements depending on what you pick. The choice of a high-technology object will imply that other objects of similar technological level are in use in the society you're working with, and that the society has economic mechanisms in place to produce such an item. The choice of a toothbrush or other personal hygiene item can imply things about the society or about the character (perhaps cleanliness and personal hygiene are important to them). The choice of a natural object, such as a tree or an animal, can imply the role of nature to your society and the personality of your point of view character. The choice of an object associated with witchcraft (black cat, for example?) will evoke a very different, specific type of atmosphere. The more time you spend on any given object, the greater its perceived importance, so think through why you have it there and what it's doing for you (see my previous post, Focus your worldbuilding efforts). Also, the more you support any given object with others that evoke the same thing, the stronger will be the power of the impression you make on the reader.

Objects don't exist in our minds in isolation. They are like mental webs of all the contexts and emotional responses in which we've ever seen them. Thus, they can potentially bring any or all of those contexts with them into a reader's mind. As writers, we can choose to include an object as a way of guiding the way our readers think - which brings me to the topic of labeling.

It's not only the objects you include in your story that are important, it's what you choose to call them. Think about the mental web that I mentioned in the last paragraph. What you call an object will allow your reader to enter that mental web at one location or another, to very different effect.

For example, say your character carries with him/her an object that allows him to talk with other characters at a distance. Is it a walkie-talkie? Is it a cell phone? Is it a mobile? Is it a communicator? Is it an ansible? All of these are names for (very) roughly the same kind of object, but each one says extremely different things about the surrounding context of the world, and even the genre of the story (I'll remark in case I have non-sff readers that communicator and ansible are both science fictional terms). Even the two that are most alike, cell phone and mobile, imply that the story takes place in very different areas of the world, or at least in the point of view of a person from these different areas.

Labels are also very important socially. If I chose to discuss labels for people here, I could go on all day (which I'd better not). The example I immediately think of for that is the American high school model where the kids are divided into groups labeled things like "jocks" "geeks" "stoners" or any other selection of labels you recall from your own experience. Objects can also have this kind of diverse personality, because any object can be called totally different things by members of smaller sub-groups of the same society.

I have an example of this from my Varin novel. The servant caste uses a particular type of defensive weapon for bodyguarding purposes - small metal balls that they can throw like (slow) bullets to slow down an attacker, even one who is better armed. Defining these objects and their characteristics wasn't enough, though. They needed to be named. I knew that the Imbati servant caste would have their own name for them, an insider's name, and it would be short and familiar, relying on a lot of insider knowledge. The outsider's name for it would associate it with them, and would possibly be derogatory or slang-like. A scientific name for it would be more descriptive, as would the impression of them of someone who was not familiar with them. Thus I have the Imbati call them "rounder spheres." Other castes typically call them "Imbati shot." But when the noble character sees the servant use them, he doesn't know what they are, so he describes their effect: "Something too small to see hit the shop's front window with a sharp crack."

That's as much as I can do today, but let me just end by saying that if you have an object in your story that will be seen differently by different groups, it's worth putting some time into figuring out what those different groups will call it. That will imply as much about the social groups as it does about the object itself.

It's something to think about.


  1. So true. I try to be very careful with the words I use for the simple reason that the voice can hit a discordant note if I pick the wrong way to say something.


  2. I've had the disconcerting effect of something clearly written to evoke a strange, non-standard setting being comfortingly familiar to me (Foreign Service brat, grew up mostly in the Middle East). I forget now what the object was, but it was identified by (local) name (and I said, Oh, yes, that thing I know!) and then explained by/for an outsider and it took me several seconds to understand why the book had to explain this familiar thing. (Pretend it was, say, a tricycle - called a tricycle and then described as a three-wheeled child's vehicle.)
    Not something an author can defend against...that's the reader's 50%. And somewhat less likely to happen for a fantasy/SF writer (unless s/he uses real-world words for things - which is probably a whole blog post worth of consideration). But still.

  3. Good idea, Misha! Thanks for the comment.

    Thanks for commenting, jjmcgaffey! That's a really good point. Readers always bring a lot to what they read, and so some things are just not under the writer's control. Very interesting.