Descriptions in close 3rd person

Toby Frost

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Say I'm writing a story about people on another planet. None of them has ever seen (for example) a snake, and there's no mention of snakes or a direct equivalent in their history. The concept of a snake just doesn't exist for them. The story moves between three characters in close third person.

An alien creature has turned up that somewhat resembles a snake. In this situation, is it reasonable to mention a snake when describing it? I think it isn't, strictly speaking, as the close third person POV means that the description is coming "through" the characters. On the other hand, it might not be sufficiently jarring to matter. I'd be interested to know what others think about this.
 

The Judge

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I wouldn't, as I'd want to maintain world-building integrity. (Golly, that sounds pompous, but "linguistic/information territory of the novel" sounded unintellgible!) If the world itself had snakes, but these three characters had never seen or heard of one, I'd possibly use the analogy then, though. I'm not so much worried about maintaining strict close third POV in narrative -- eg there I'd be more open to using words the characters didn't know -- as long as the world itself encompassed the idea/word.

But I think this is another matter which might exercise us as writers but which readers simply wouldn't notice or worry about if they did.
 

HareBrain

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I got caught up in something similar ages ago when trying to think whether I could call it an Adam's apple if there was no Adam in the world's mythology.

There was another thread too about "French doors" and calling a type of carriage a Berlin. (I think Teresa was involved in that one.)

If you rejected "snake" as too outside the POV (like Tolkien's "like an express train" in ch1 of LOTR) could you still use the word "serpentine"? And if not, would you then have to look up the etymology of every word you use to make sure there would be an analogous word on your planet?

I aim to provide no answers, merely distress.
 

Wayne Mack

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How important is it to the plot for the alien to be snake-like? If not, just describe the appearance in light detail and let the reader decide if the alien is a snake.
 

Luiglin

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Daft as it may sound but I've had a similar thing in my Dark Lord writing.

I had one instance where I had to you a common French phrase as part of a punchline. I tried rewriting it but each way it just didn't work without the French.

I considered scrapping it but the conversation in which it took place just read flat.

Seeing as the number of alternative language phrases/terms crop up in modern English I took another approach.

Now, any French is Elvish, German for Dwarves etc. This made life so much easier, doubly so as before Elves only spoke in rhyme and that was getting to be a nightmare.

Back to the snake though. Could you not substitute an alternative that would help with the characters describing the thing. Are there fish on the planet, maybe an eel like version or worms?
 

Toby Frost

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I only chose "snake" as an example. Any word that describes something outside the knowledge or experience of these characters would do: "elephant" or "jazz music", say. It's a tricky one, as the comparisons make descriptions a lot easier. When I was writing fantasy set in an imaginary world I ditched the words "thug", "sod" (as a coarse word for "fellow") and "lesbian" as they all had real-world derivations that wouldn't have happened in the fantasy world. But I might be overthinking it.
 

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Yes, I've avoided words like "stoic" and "platonic" as for me their origins were too bound up in the names and concepts, and I would avoid "lesbian" and "Sapphic" for the same reason. I recall wavering over "thug" for a while, trying to make up my mind if it was divorced enough from its origins and in the end decided it wasn't, so I didn't use it.

Restricting oneself like this, though, isn't necessarily a bad thing -- it prods us into thinking about words and broadening our word choice, and being a little more creative in descriptions.
 

Plucky Novice

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You're in such good company!

I suspect we all do this to some degree. I found myself looking up the etymology of swear words as I don't have religion or deities in my world.

Does the reader know there aren't snakes? Is the lack of snakes important? If no to both, could you just have snakes?
 

Toby Frost

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As I say, snakes are just an example. It's more about the frame of reference, and who is telling the story. It's third person, but the narrator isn't omniscient. I've also had to cut out the religious swear words. I'm not sure that the characters would have strong enough taboos about sex to produce other swearing, but I need some rude words for them to shout!
 

sknox

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If it's close third-person, then I'd get in close. That is, I'd put myself in that situation, see the thing (whatever it is), and just react. I might point and yell "is that a Whatsit?" with a conversation to follow. In another sort of situation, I might just describe the thing to myself: a sinuous creature but huge, the size of three horses in a line. Rather than flesh it had some sort of armor or scales protecting it right up to all six of its eyes. Maybe another character identifies it as a Variegated Whatsit, or maybe we're all astounded. Depends on how central the beastie is to the moment.

Another approach you might try: watch a Star Wars scene or some other SF scene with a crowd scene with beasties. Let the creatures drift by. Now, jot down a sentence or two describing each. What are you noticing? Coloration? How similar or different a creature is from a known creature? Whether the beast looks dangerous or not? You can go back and pause the scene to describe in greater detail, but that first impression should form your first notes. BTW, you can try this with earthly animals as well, so long as they're new to you. The aim is to give yourself a vocabulary for describing new things with known words.

As for swearing, don't forget bodily functions. That's the other great pool for obscenity. Gods, sex, and sh*t. The unholy trinity. <g>
 

sule

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Say I'm writing a story about people on another planet. None of them has ever seen (for example) a snake, and there's no mention of snakes or a direct equivalent in their history. The concept of a snake just doesn't exist for them. The story moves between three characters in close third person.

An alien creature has turned up that somewhat resembles a snake. In this situation, is it reasonable to mention a snake when describing it? I think it isn't, strictly speaking, as the close third person POV means that the description is coming "through" the characters. On the other hand, it might not be sufficiently jarring to matter. I'd be interested to know what others think about this.
I would say, in this specific instance, that it doesn't make sense for a description to equivocate a thing the narrator doesn't know about with something that is unfamiliar. If you're in close third person you can't step outside their head, even if providing that sort of detail would make it easier for the reader to see the thing being described. It's basically a choice between "do I throw off the reader by having a character mention a thing they know nothing about" versus "do I risk confusing the reader by describing something in a less-than optimal way". This is an easy choice for me, because I think a good writer can always find a way to describe something without confusing the reader, even if they can't make the obvious parallels.
I'm not sure that the characters would have strong enough taboos about sex to produce other swearing, but I need some rude words for them to shout!
Basically anything that they find repulsive or off-putting can be used as a swear word. Brandon Sanderson might be the current example of 'unusual' swears in a fantasy setting: characters in a world where metal is part of the magic system use "rust" a lot and characters on a planet where a huge storm rolls through every week or so say "storming." If you can invent a reason for it, you can make almost any noun, verb, or adjective into a swear word.
 

Capricorn42

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@Toby Frost :
Say I'm writing a story about people on another planet. None of them has ever seen (for example) a snake, and there's no mention of snakes or a direct equivalent in their history. The concept of a snake just doesn't exist for them. The story moves between three characters in close third person.

Just chucking this out there, but why not just accept that this world does have snakes, or leopards, or cheese, whatever the 'thing' might be. Would it really ruin the story if such things did exist in this world? Personally as a reader, I don't think it would, details like this are not so important for me, compared to characters, plot etc.
 

Jo Zebedee

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It would only bother me if I knew they didn’t have snakes in their world - which id only think about if you told me. Sometimes we can get in knots about things which if we didn’t draw attention to would pass just fine
 

Montero

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If you want something that is long and cylindrical for comparison, there is a certain bodily function that provides ones in most creatures. Except cows. Definitely not in cows.
 

DLCroix

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Say I'm writing a story about people on another planet. None of them has ever seen (for example) a snake, and there's no mention of snakes or a direct equivalent in their history. The concept of a snake just doesn't exist for them. The story moves between three characters in close third person.

An alien creature has turned up that somewhat resembles a snake. In this situation, is it reasonable to mention a snake when describing it? I think it isn't, strictly speaking, as the close third person POV means that the description is coming "through" the characters. On the other hand, it might not be sufficiently jarring to matter. I'd be interested to know what others think about this.

Hi! Well, neither the characters nor the narrator may know what a snake is, but they do know the concept of a reptile, under which a snake would be a long, tubular-shaped reptile; a crocodile a four-legged reptile with teeth and considerable affection for ferocity and for eating people. A dragon, then, would be a four-legged reptile with bad breath, a sulfur odor and good for lighting bonfires, and yes, people too.
Well, it basically depends on how you design your world. The characters in my saga, for example, given that they have a terrestrial origin, they are a colony, they allow my narrator to avoid all these semantic doubts at the time of descriptions precisely because, even more strange a world and a culture of their origin terrestrial, in general increases this problem of cultural association and therefore the work of the narrator is difficult. But also, for example in my history, there are areas where its inhabitants do not even know what bread is or the mayonnaise or a lot of fruits than in areas just distant barely about 600 kms. yes they are known. Some don't know the beer, hell. In the same way, Jesus Christ (because some church remains, something of the religion managed to pass through the colonial fleets) they call "INRI" and, of course, they do not know that it is actually an acronym. In other words, I use the ignorance of my characters as a narrative element that I even take advantage of. But, as I was saying, it all depends on the way you design your world. The closer to home, the easier it is to show what was lost along the way and that includes the culture, of course. :giggle:
 

Ursa major

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I think, if one wants to talk about strict close third (or first) person PoV, it may be best to set aside whether a particular planet has, say, any snakes on it, or whether a particular language has a word for, say, a snake, and just put oneself in the position of the PoV character's knowledge, that is:
  1. has the PoV character ever seen whatever** it is;
  2. does the PoV character know the word for whatever it is or might be.
So you get decision table, based on whether the answer to each question is Yes or No:
  • (1) = No and (2) = No --> the narrative can't provide whatever it is with other than an invented name (with this invention mentioned);
  • (1) = No and (2) = Yes --> the narrative states that whatever it is seems to (more or less) fit the description of <name>;
  • (1) = Yes and (2) = No --> the narrative can't give the name, but can say that, for instance, "it would come to him/her eventually" or "it was on the tip of his/her tongue";
  • (1) = Yes and (2) = Yes --> The narrative gives the name.
Note that the above ignores whether the recognition, or the lack thereof, is correct or incorrect: the PoV narration can only really say what the PoV character thinks they know.


** - This doesn't only apply to objects. It can apply to anything that: the PoV character recognises (or not); thinks they recognise (or not); knows the name of (or not); thinks they know the name of (or not).
 

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