Notes on Writing: The Perfection of Imperfect Comprehension

Jeff VanderMeer • August 10th, 2012 @ 10:10 am • Writing Tips

(Photo by Taylor Lockwood—all rights reserved.)

The following short essay was originally presented as part of a longer powerpoint presentation given in various forms, including at a London architectural conference and at the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine.

Sometimes it’s useful to think in abstractions to more clearly see the effects we are trying to achieve in fiction. For example this idea: Everything we see around us, whether functional or decorative, once existed in someone’s imagination. Every building, every fixture, every chair, every table, every vase, every road, every toaster. The world we live in is largely a manifestation of many individual and collective imaginations applied to the task of altering reality.

If this is true, then nothing we see is entirely inert. Everything around us has, to some degree, a point of view. Thus, it may be useful to think of objects and other things embedded in your narrative as characters, too. Which is to say, that they have their own stories and agendas at the micro level of narrative. Paying attention to the possibility in these stories can be closely allied to characterization generally.

In extreme situations, these points of view become powerful influencers of behavior and history. This is the case in the imaginary city of Ambergris as described in my novel Finch, which I offer up as an example. In the novel, the subterranean inhabitants of the city, the gray caps, have Risen and taken over the city, occupying it and trying to maintain power over the human inhabitants through what can only be described as thought viruses given flesh. Their version of the city can be seen as an operational reality in competition with the reality of the original, indigenous peoples and the settlers who supplanted both them and the gray caps.

These operational realities do not play well with one another and the Rising brings everything to a boil. For a long time before this, the majority of Ambergris’s population—the descendants of Manzikert’s whaling clan, and new settlers—had the luxury of forgetting that they live in one of three possible versions of the city. This is something you see often in our real world, and this is also why you see the sparks of seemingly “new” conflict in some cases—because there is something there that has never been resolved. People on the ground have to live with that, and the dissonance it creates. (This is somewhat comparable in some ways to the more personal conflict and interpersonal dynamic between two individuals. It could be said to be a type of macro-characterization when applied to fiction.)

The principle shapers of the city during the time depicted in Finch are the Occupiers, the gray caps, and in Ambergris, the Occupation takes roughly three forms.

—Re/Construction: Rebuilding and new construction that alters the very map of the city in ways that favor the Occupier.

—Renovation: Or perhaps more properly, repurposing, as in the repurposing of existing spaces. This repurposing is meant to erase history or to rewrite it to favor the Occupier—to, in some cases, retro-actively win a lost battle.

—Transformation: More radical than construction or renovation, transformation creates change in an irreversible way while at times revealing the gap between the reach and intent of the occupier and the culture of the occupied. These transactions sometimes lead to situations beyond the ken of even the occupier.

All three of these contexts or states of being impact not just the city’s present, but also its past and its future. It’s almost a kind of time travel, with the intent of eradicating the existing past, or the memory of it, and to attempt to lock in the future—to make a certain future seem inevitable. And all three forms are not just re-imaginings of setting, but part of a war conducted at the dual levels of physical spaces or places, and in the imagination. They are thought-viruses as surely as any aggressive and detrimental internet meme or ideology, and they are meant to inflict wounds in one’s thoughts, to influence or degrade “hearts and minds.” All three impact the lives of the characters and shape behavior. (All three modes can exist in much more benign contexts than the ones used in Finch, of course. Reclamation can be a powerful and positive idea—for example, in urban landscapes taking an abandoned lot and making it into a garden.)

Construction or reconstruction is aggressive, hostile colonization by the Occupier—it requires planning, forethought, a kind of malice. It helps define the overall character of the gray caps in the context of Finch, from a human perspective. Fungal cathedrals, also known as mushroom houses, burst up out of the ground overnight, creating dissonance for the inhabitants. Versions that via spore infiltrate ordinary brick-and-mortar houses and buildings, gradually devouring them, until they look the same but are now both like and unlike what was there before, which is even more unnerving. The two towers being built in the bay, on the other hand, represent an event almost always on the verge of happening—a completing that is never quite complete, causing a suspended and continual sense of dread and speculation. The two towers are a slow-motion, long-term terror campaign waged by the Occupier on the Occupied. The two towers implicates the citizenry in an unknown purpose through the use of slave labor. People become conspirators in the creation of their own terror.

Two creative writing ideas are embodied by these two re-constructions:

Transference: the embedding of a real-world situation, in this case any situation in which a foreign force occupies land and then attempts to hold it not just through the creation of housing but the destruction of existing structures. In order for transference to work, it must take on the natural context of the fictional situation into which it is introduced; it must be fully “cooked” and the implications of the acts described understood by the writer at a visceral level.

Inversion: the literal (or in the case of ideas, figurative) opposite of a real-world occurrence found in a fictional text, the inversion intended to help in the full digestion or assimilation of the event for fictional purposes, and also for the more prosaic reason that it makes more sense in the surface of the text. In the case of the two towers being built, I had in mind the destruction of the towers in New York City, but in Ambergris the intent of that destruction is better expressed as construction rather than obliteration. (This is a method of finding personal distance from a horrifying event so as to be able to hopefully write about it in a useful rather than derivative or facile way.)

Conscious renovations or re-purposings of space, meanwhile, tend to be crude in their transference, and it’s no different in Ambergris under the Occupiers. The detention camps, for example, are erected over the remains of the source of Ambergris’s industrial and military might. Finch’s police station was once the headquarters of Hoegbotton & Sons, one of the two trading companies that ruled before the Rising. By repurposing this space and de-emphasizing its original importance, the gray caps are sending a clear message. They have also turned the space, from detective John Finch’s POV, inside out. As the H&S HQ, it was, with its small, high windows and imposing barricade-like desks in the front, akin to a bank—a stronghold to keep money safe and people out. As a police station, those same windows and barricades seem to Finch to make the space a miserable prison for those who work inside of it. It creates a surreal sense of place, as Finch has experienced it in both functions. He sees an overlay of the old along with the new. The new world is a harder experience to bear because of it.

What am I creating here? Is it setting or is it characterization? I guess it depends on how you see the influence of place on people. (It’s worth noting that these kinds of changes can be witnessed in our daily lives, and although we may not see them as sinister or bad, they still signal a change in context: the strip mall that is now a church; the church turned into a homeless shelter; the movie theater torn down to make way for a Best Buy.)

As for transformations, these include the half-human Partials and the fungal guns and bullets that Finch and the other detectives are forced to use by the gray caps. These weapons constitute a more organic form of colonization by the Occupier. Deadly effective against other human beings, the guns fire fungal bullets that colonize when they meet flesh—or any surface. In this sense, then, the bullets are emissaries of the Occupying force, mindless anti-negotiators who give no quarter. They conduct terminal interrogations. This, then, is one advantage of contextualization within the fantastical: as extended, literalized metaphor, an object that functions as a physical thing embedded into the narrative, and bringing with it the context of the setting’s history but also the resonance beyond that of the real world.

Partials, meanwhile, have abandoned the human cause and metastasize the transformation of the city willed by the Occupiers within their own bodies. The bodies of Partials become micro-cities of voluntary contamination within the larger macro city. They carry their full context with them, self-contained, like a badge of honor, and represent the most uncomplicated relationship between Occupier and Occupied: unabashed traitor, become converted to the cause. And thus they also become evidence put forward by the Occupier that their will is supported within the city, for the Partial wants only to be Whole: to be the Occupier. The Partials exist embedded into the story as real people but also as a literalization of the situation of the kind of traitor who abandons him or herself to the ideology of the opposition—here, it shows up as a colonization of the body that works in the context of the fantasy setting.


But a renovation or transformation also can imply an augmentation or improvement, and it is one of the gray caps’ failures that they provide “enhancements” for the police force and the general populace that don’t, in fact, augment or improve. For example, in the police station, the gray caps have supplemented telephones with “memory holes,” which are the ends of living pneumatic tubes leading to the underground. The dynamic here is another common one. Either through cultural, religious, or technological differences, Occupiers sometimes provide what they think are benign objects to the populace, only to find out later that they have made a massive, almost inexplicable mistake. It’s a very dark joke, peeking out through the surface of the text: the gray caps’ find this method of communication ordinary, standard, non-threatening—it is a non-issue. But to Finch and the others who have to use these enhancements, the experience is horrific and alien, and causes extreme discomfort.

Such situations, in which different operational realities slide off of each other—the ways in which they do not connect—are important to realistic depictions in all types of fiction. When in fiction we match up too perfectly the meeting points between cultures or differing world-views, we make assumptions that can degrade the quality of our fiction—and we miss opportunities for further complexity. The kind of complexity that organically creates conflict, characterization, and more specificity of detail.

Said another way, a seamless landscape and a seamless harmony of ideas intertwined as the backdrop to the events in a novel can be a sign that not enough thought has been put into the elements of the setting/milieu. Surely if there is conflict in the foreground, between characters, then it is possible that elements of the setting may also be conflict in some way? Failure to think about these issues can create gross simplification in the characterization as well.

(There’s another point to be made here as well: This kind of conflict can be said to create motion at the micro, or paragraph, level in fiction—and this kind of motion is important because it generates interest and can compensate for lack of motion at the macro level, in places where lack of motion is important to the narrative. Also, the character can’t consider these elements just as part of a flat tapestry of a backdrop, but must react. John Finch will forever be reacting to the disconnect of the memory holes.)

Directly related to characterization, then, there are questions imposed by the setting that are unique to the particular situation of each character: How does the weight of every-day existence (the personal, the past, that history) affect the character? Is it a light, almost imperceptible weight? Is it a heavier weight that impinges on the character’s ability to thrive, to live, perhaps even to perform basic functions? The answers to these questions are, as ever, affected by elements like ethnicity, class, religion, etc.

Similarly, how does the environment contribute to the operational reality created by the character, and how is that reality either more or less in line with what one might call “the official story”? For example, how does it affect point of view and action if a character’s operational realities includes one or both of the following statements: (1) The United States guarantees more freedoms for its citizens than any other country in the world and we must defend those freedoms and/or (2) All policemen are corrupt and going to the police should always be a last resort.

Clearly, there are real, concrete elements or facts—dangers and opportunities—that influence a person’s operational reality and thus affect their life (and thus a character’s life). But there is also interpretation of the world, the subjective ways in which a person chooses to analyze, interpret, and internalize, that makes them unique as a character and defines the self-narrative of their lives. This also speaks to the idea of agency because moving past simplistic ideas about character agency is fairly important to creating complex effects. Unadulterated, unexamined agency is boring—and potentially deadly in the context of fantasy, where because everything is potentially possible constraint is often an important principle.

In part, then, I am trying to make the case for being multi-directional to your approaches to setting and character—that the flow chart showing the relationship isn’t a double-headed arrow between the two but something more three-dimensional and organic that has layers and confluence that can’t easily be diagrammed. (A multi-directional approach is in a sense akind of martial arts stance from which you can create many different actions.) Throw-away settings are like throw-away characters: A missed opportunity but one that is prevalent enough in fantasy to be problematic. Indeed, throw-away settings may help create throw-away characters. When writers get into trouble in their novels and stories, it can be because of misjudging the nature of this interwoven relationship between character and setting—because if you don’t address the complexity of that relationship, you can wind up with something that engages in stereotype quite easily.

Finally, Finch is an extreme example in some ways, and thus a good way to show some of these concepts clearly. (Whether it handles them well or poorly isn’t for me to say.) But these places and opportunities exist all around in even the most seemingly mundane moments and settings. We do the real world a disservice when we pretend otherwise.

Finch by Jeff Vandermeer

4 Responses to “Notes on Writing: The Perfection of Imperfect Comprehension”

  1. Tiffany says:

    This was a great read! The impact of environment on character (on people) is a profound one. As a native New Yorker, I haven’t seen this exemplified so much since 9/11 and in witnessing the changes to the overall character of New York City. It is the never-ending story of occupier (gentrifier) versus the occupied being played out, the classism, the erasure of the past, the policing of the occupied the unawareness/blindness/ignorance of the occupier. There is less crime, which means that lots more poor people are locked up for a long time for non-violent offenses, there’s also much less art that addresses these issues creatively and thoroughly (without stereotyping) at least being marketed and widely read and seen. This new environment affects the character of everyone involved and the way we, as human beings continue to live out our lives. And then what happened before any of us were born for us to get to this moment in time? The history of New York, of America, of the world and the places we came from before we got to New York engage in an ongoing conversation with who we have become. As a writer in this context continuing with NYC as an example, the changing landscape, the newer, shinier architecture, the rampant commercialism can make for more sterile fiction or approaches to creativity. The culture integrates all of it to varying degrees and people/characters absorb these changes and it effects their personalities. But who wants to disrupt the status quo especially if they just want to tell a fantasy story? Seizing the opportunity to do this through fiction especially fantasy and speculative fiction is one we shouldn’t take for granted. But what would be the incentive? It would have to matter to the writer beyond a desire to just create better fiction which often means fiction that will sell. I guess I think there is a greater fear at play here. Maybe even an unconscious one. If you confront a character’s humanity and how it relates to their environment then there might be ways we have to face uncomfortable truths about ourselves. I guess it all boils down to writers understanding why they write what they are writing or what impact do they want to have (if they want to have one, of course) on the greater good, which includes, of course, the environment. And then what is the greater good? This will vary for people. So I agree, it is very important for writers and artists to show many more spirals and layers inside and outside of our characters if anything to make for more interesting and powerful literature.

  2. jeff vandermeer says:

    Tiffany: Thanks so much for the awesome and insightful comment. I totally agree with all of this–and yes I do think it can be uncomfortable but writing isn’t always supposed to be comfortable, as you note. – JeffV

  3. Just Cool Links | Cora Buhlert says:

    [...] Jeff Vandermeer has an insightful post about setting, characterisation and point of view. Long but well worth reading. [...]

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