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Thinking Like a Stranger

A schematic of a patrician’s home/ware-house in the Hansa Museum in Lübeck, Germany. Author photo.

Well, that’s what all writers do, isn’t it? We get inside the heads of fictional people and other critters, find out their motivations (or give them some) and then see what happens. Right?

But what if you need a character with a mind that works in a very different way from yours?

You look at good historical writing, for starters. And great works by other writers of fiction. As a history professor said, “the past is another country. They do things differently there.” Dr. Art Macavoy added a vital point: “But it’s not a different planet.” Translated into author, people in different times and places think and act for reasons that might be very strange and abhorrent to us, but that make logical sense in their world (most of the time). However, they are still people with similar basic desires and needs.

This applies to non-human species that you create. What is the basic goal of the individual and his culture? What does that person do in order to live up to society’s rules, or to skirt them so he can do what he wants to do? If all Horla are trained from birth that earning money is the highest good, especially if you can persuade or coerce others to do the work for you, legal or not, then everything in Horla culture will focus on that. Social structure (family or clan corporations), social rank, what is considered good and evil, all those need to tie into the basic foundation, unless you the author show that your particular Horla has a really good reason why he does something different.

However, self-preservation is even more powerful. No Horla is going to accept the greatest deal in the history of the galaxy if it means he’s going to die. Unless he thinks he can find fine print and a loophole in the contract. When the shooting starts, he’s going to flee or fight, just like a human.

However, aliens can also do things like we do, but for very different reasons, which changes how an ambassador or businessman would have to work with them. In our world, Chinese families and individuals established businesses that looked, from the outside, like western joint-stock corporations. The shares would pass down family lineages, and the occasional outsider would buy in, others would sell shares, and there would be distributions of profits to share owners. But the goal was to provide income to pay for dowries, funerals, and ancestor rites, and shares could not be sold on a market or traded the way western joint-stock shares were. So people bought shares to augment a dowry, for example, planning to sell when they needed to marry off a daughter.

If the lineage made sufficient money to invest in good farmland or real-estate, then they sold or sometimes closed the business, no matter how much income it was generating at that moment. Why? Because land was more honorable, taxes far less, and provided income that could support a gentleman and bureaucrat, which was the ideal thing to have in the lineage.

In a more personal example, the historian Steven Ozment describes the patrician families of Nuremberg in the 1400s-mid 1500s. One man and his wife had eight children die before age one. Child nine, a boy, lived. The father resisted having the boy named until it appeared that he would live, and then fretted because at age three, the child still preferred milk to wine. The father was terrified that the boy would die from bad milk, and expressed great relief in a letter to a family member when the little boy finally started drinking wine.

Eight children. All dead. Then at last, one survives, and instead of rejoicing, the father holds back for several days to weeks before daring to believe that perhaps this one will live. Fast forward to 1910 and the Texas Hill Country. A neighbor of my grandmother’s family had the crawler baby toddle off the high porch, fall into a slop-barrel, and drown. Gammy was with her father when they went to pay condolences. The “old Dutchman” was on the porch, and Gammy’s father expressed his sorrow and asked about how the family fared. Gammy said, “The old Dutchman pulled on his pipe, then said, ‘Vell, vas too bad, but vas too young to vork.'” Stoic? Cold? Or pragmatic?

But even within a society that sees some members as almost without value, individuals can stick out. Ten years ago or so I read an article about vaccinations and the problems faced after a rumor went out that the polio vaccine caused infertility. The author had a picture of an Afghani man and his daughter. The girl was crippled because of polio. her father had refused the vaccination, and now his child would always suffer. Even though she was “just” a daughter, he loved her and felt horrible for what happened. They traveled with the medical techs, and he told people what had happened and urged them to ignore the rumors and have their children protected.

Now, extrapolate that into a different culture.

I’ve found over the years that reading about the past and past minds helps me get into alien characters more easily. And writing aliens helps me better get inside the minds—as much as we can—of pre-modern and non-western people. Apparently I do this well enough to spook my students on occasion. I’ve been told I do “historical heavies” a little too convincingly. But walking the students through pre-modern logic really helps them understand why Charlemagne or Elizabeth I did things that seem counterproductive to us.

References: Ozment, The Burgermeister’s Daughter, and When Fathers Ruled

Richard van Glahn The Economic History of China

25 Comments
  1. I’m starting on a serious round of research into the role of volunteer nurses during the American Civil War – by going back and reading the various memoirs and collections of letters written by these women. I want to get into their state of mind, straight and unfiltered by later historians – which is what I tried to do with the Adelsverein series. Stick as much as possible to materiel contemporary or a little after the events. Sometimes how people observed and reacted is very different from what later historians write.
    The past is a foreign country – and they do things differently there.

    October 14, 2018
  2. There were a lot of Catholic nuns who did a lot of nursing but get very little credit. Look especially at Gettysburg where the nuns at emits burg went down to the battlefield and worked so tirelessly that soldiers who were there gave up anti-Catholicism for the rest of their lives.

    October 14, 2018
    • Already run across some materiel about the nursing nuns – supposedly the Army surgeons liked working with them because they were such good nurses, and had a lot of medical training as it was, then.
      Dorothea Dix apparently didn’t want anything to do with the nursing sisters, though. She was quite adamant about it.
      Part of the plot will involve the aftermath at Gettysburg. I’ve already read a couple of reminiscences from women who went there to nurse – after the battles were over, it was absolutely horrific. From the heat, and all. One woman wrote that some of the wounded had not had their wounds tended for a week, the temporary hospitals were so piled deep with wounded.

      October 14, 2018
      • A friend of mine who lives in the Gettysburg area told me a horrible story about the night after Pickett’s Charge. It seems there were a great many wounded and unable to move men on the battlefield, and the local farmers decided to turn their hogs loose. All night long you could hear the agonized screams of men being eaten alive.

        You can ask the park rangers about that story; it’s not one they usually tell the tourists.

        October 14, 2018
  3. Kord #

    I once took a law class where the professor told us that the law of emanated from God. She did this on purpose for a whole lesson, making everyone but me absolutely furious. Two dozen very bright and analytical youngsters being told to prove that God did not cause the law to come about. Of course, proving a negative is hard. I was a few years older at the time and more importantly had read a lot of fantasy books. So I sat just smiling through the lesson.

    Of course, the prof was playing of the once very common idea that good laws did emanate from God who inspired just people to write good laws. Too funny in a secular nordic society 20+ years ago. Not so funny today for obvious reasons.

    To paraphrase your last sentence. Sometimes a different country is the past.

    “You drowned him?” the Princess whispered aghast. “You just drowned their bosun. He couldn’t swim. And my dignity doesn’t matter that much.”

    “I love you for thinking that way,” I said sadly, “but your person must be seen as inviolate untill those bloody accords are signed. Besides,” I went on, “I didn’t drown him. His culture, his God and his beliefs did that.” I leaned against the gunwhale, and put my hands on the geldwood railing. Not far from my sword, but not too close either. The other sailors were looking our way, but not moving. Hesitating.

    “Heinekens are probably the best sailors in the world,” I explained, “but they can’t swim. Heinek is the sea-god of the Hefe pantheon and the Heinekens are his chosen people. At least they believe that. As a a sign of trust in their god, they never learn to swim.”

    “So it’s a bargain?” the Princess asked, and I nodded.

    “As long as he stays on his ships,” I said pointing at a young sailor staring at us, “a Heineken can almost dance on water, but in return he will go willingly when Heinek calls. That bosun was a superlative sailor, and he acted with great dignity once he hit the sea. What hapened before will not matter a whit to Heinek. He’ll great the Bosun like a victorious warrior. At least they think so.

    “Will there be more trouble?” she asked.

    “I doubt it.” I shrugged. “Heinek called him home. It is hard for a sailor to argue with a God who carries his ship. I’ll speak to the captain, but I doubt there will be any repercussions.”

    October 14, 2018
    • Kord #

      Based on the idea that superstition kept a lot of sailors from learning to swim.

      October 14, 2018
      • I can’t read the word Heineken without thinking of the beer. And I don’t even drink beer.

        October 14, 2018
      • Mary #

        eh, for most sailors, it would just prolong the agony. The ship couldn’t stop to pick you up, especially in rough seas; no other ship was likely to come by; and you’d hardly manage to swim to shore.

        October 14, 2018
    • TonyT #

      Having practiced man overboard drills in a previous career, I can say I’m not sure that swimming would help a lot. It’s really hard to keep track of a small object (e.g. person) in even a relatively calm sea; if you take your eyes off the person, you’ll have a hard time finding them again.

      Then you have to turn the ship around, which is hard enough to do quickly in a modern ship, but much, much harder in a sailing ship.

      If the water is icy cold, after a few minutes you’ll lose motor control anyway. B

      Before life vests, if you hit your head on the way down, knowing how to swim wouldn’t help anyway.

      October 15, 2018
  4. OldNFO #

    Monographs and histories DO give us that ‘leg up’ so to speak on those times and the mindset. And are well worth our research time.

    October 14, 2018
  5. I have so many things I need to read . . . and I’m so ignorant of history . . .

    October 14, 2018
    • My TBR list is, well, probably longer than my predicted lifespan. So many holes in my knowledge, so many holes…

      October 14, 2018
      • I kept some books from my parents’ house when we had to empty it.

        Don’t ask me why my rocket scientist father had a three volume “Memoirs of the Baroness D’Oberkirch” but I had a nasty feeling that was the sort of thing people were talking about when they said research, so I kept them. If I ever need to research the decades leading up to the French Revolution . . .

        October 14, 2018
      • This is why I am always puzzled at people who complain about being bored, or there being nothing to read or to learn or…

        There’s so much, we’ll never get it all!

        October 15, 2018
    • Draven #

      us saying that is funny or ironic, because we know far more history than…well, AntiFa. Like, all of them, collectively.

      October 14, 2018
    • Christopher M Chupik #

      At least you know that you don’t know. Some people don’t know, and write about it anyhow.

      October 14, 2018
      • Harry Russell #

        Of course sometimes the knowledge that what you “know” is wrong is also a tool for stepping of that incorrect knowledge into new & interesting ideas…

        October 14, 2018
  6. “Fast forward to 1910 and the Texas Hill Country. A neighbor of my grandmother’s family had the crawler baby toddle off the high porch, fall into a slop-barrel, and drown. Gammy was with her father when they went to pay condolences. The “old Dutchman” was on the porch, and Gammy’s father expressed his sorrow and asked about how the family fared. Gammy said, “The old Dutchman pulled on his pipe, then said, ‘Vell, vas too bad, but vas too young to vork.’” Stoic? Cold? Or pragmatic?”

    Knowing a lot of ‘old Dutch’ myself (from Pennsylvania), most likely he was just being very stoic in the face of outsiders. The ones I knew were mostly born 1920-40 or so, and were very adamant about not getting emotional in front of strangers or letting on if you favored one child above another. They also used to talk about the Thirty Years War like it ended last year for some reason.

    October 14, 2018
    • In many ways, for large swaths of the German-speaking lands, the Thirty-Years War was a major cultural and social break point. So many things changed, populations lost that didn’t recover until after WWII, borders re-drawn (or not), that it is an enormous marker-point.

      October 15, 2018
  7. Mark A OMalley #

    23 skidoo

    October 14, 2018
  8. Mary #

    Read primary source! Read stuff that was written at the time!

    Not so much for a given era, but all over the place. It gives you the habit of wondering whether things were different.

    October 14, 2018
  9. One man and his wife had eight children die before age one. Child nine, a boy, lived. The father resisted having the boy named until it appeared that he would live, and then fretted because at age three, the child still preferred milk to wine. The father was terrified that the boy would die from bad milk, and expressed great relief in a letter to a family member when the little boy finally started drinking wine.

    I can relate to this. Not so much the wanting the child to drink wine, but rather, the sense of fear, the ‘do we brace ourselves for another loss, or do we dare hope…? And if we hope, if it is torn away, how much will it hurt?’

    Dear God though, to lose eight. I can’t imagine.

    October 15, 2018
  10. My father’s mother raised 7; she had several miscarriages. She was relatively lucky.

    October 15, 2018
  11. Synova #

    I suspect that any sapient (sentient?) alien would have some similarities to earth life. Adaptability, competitiveness, the ability to lie… attention to offspring and inculcating culture to the offspring… the understanding of the concept of “other”.

    And come to think of it, that last bit is a thing here on earth with us and how many people insist that human “aliens” can not understand the concept of cultures being different. And it’s very weird. And… parochial. Whoever “we” are, we are expected to understand the concept of “not from around here, is probably strange and has strange ideas.” While that other person from a different culture (apparently) doesn’t have that understanding and any cultural mistake made by “us” is a profound and awful insult. The “alien” in this case, assumed to have no responsibility for accommodating the other because… what? They’re limited?

    And sci-fi aliens are often written the same way. But how can anyone, even in some small and isolated place, avoid the concept of “not us, strange, and probably has strange ideas?” And extra-terrestrial aliens, while cultural differences and differences of expectations make really great story fodder, would similarly have the concept of “not us, strange, and probably has strange ideas.”

    I like the set up that one author did (I think it was Cherryh and I think it was the Chanur books) where the “diplomats” employed translators who were expected to be insultingly blunt because everyone, all of the various and different cultures and races from different star systems, had as a base expectation that no one could be successfully diplomatic. The speaker (iirc) was immune to retribution but the post existed so that everyone could separate the other race’s representative from what was said to get information across. Maybe they’d learned the hard way?

    October 15, 2018

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