Tonal Consistency in Fantasy Writing

Today I’m going to discuss a topic that ranges from extreme, blatant violations to subtle, accidental slip-ups and why they matter. The language of fantasy writing is much harder to get right than many “literary fiction” writers give it credit for. In fact, I’d say it is much, much harder than novels set in modern times on Earth.

Let’s start with Shannara, because I recently decided to watch the MTV series based on The Elfstones of Shannara.

Major spoilers for the books; minor spoilers for the TV series.

Shannara puts a clever twist on the fantasy setting. Instead of it being some mystical past, Terry Brooks made it a futuristic world. The implication is that a nuclear war happened, destroying technology, and then the radiation mutation of people became elves, gnomes, goblins, humans, etc. I think this is described in one of the “prequel” trilogies/books, but I never read them to be sure.

The number one concern when doing something like this is consistency. Some people might not like this change up because it violates genre conventions, but I could care less. If something is done consistently, then you should be allowed to do it.

The series does a pretty good job at keeping everything consistent with this setting. For example, the hero has to journey to a place called Safe Hold. We find out that this is the Sa(n) Fr(ancisco) (G)old(en Gate Bridge), where the sign has the letters smudged out and disfigured to create the words: Safe Hold. This is a pretty neat discovery, fully consistent with the setting.

But consistency of setting isn’t the only type of consistency. There is also something I’ll call tonal consistency. Despite being the future, the tone of the series keeps to a traditional fantasy tone. This means no guns, no modern music, and so on. This is where the TV series is at its worst. When guns appear in an episode, it is big shock that totally pulls you out of the tone up to that point. When modern music and a video projector appear, you lose the suspension of disbelief for the tone.

As I’ve already said, you can put all of this stuff in your fantasy setting if you want. The problem isn’t the breaking of a genre convention. The problem is that the reader/watcher has experienced hours of this world and seen no evidence that such things exist. There must be consistency from the start (or done for very deliberate and good reason).

These types of errors occur in a lot of period fiction, but no single example is usually enough to ruin anything. The problem is that you can only lose the tone of a work a certain number of times before you get pulled totally out of the atmosphere it tries to create. It’s mostly a subconscious thing that you probably don’t even notice until it’s too late to get back into the mood.

Let’s talk about some more subtle examples that are the reason this is so hard to do well. The language itself can be the source of these consistency problems. One obvious one is using the word “earth” when the characters don’t know about the planet Earth.

It is so easy to accidentally do this (not actually from Shannara): “Wil dug into the ground and felt the warm earth fall between his fingers.” You can pretend that the narrator has “translated” this for the reader. The word here is technically synonymous with “soil” or “dirt” and not referencing the name of the planet. But then why take the risk? Just use “soil” or “dirt” if that is what you mean. If the characters haven’t heard of Earth the planet, then they wouldn’t be using the word “earth” ever. Period.

The way this usually sneaks in is with similes and metaphors. “The pieces fit together like clockwork.” Wait a minute. Does this world have clocks? Are they precisely put together? “An emotional roller coaster.” Really? This world has roller coasters? Idioms can be problematic as well. “When hell freezes over.” Does anyone in the setting believe that hell is normally full of fire and brimstone?

Those ones slip in but are usually pretty obvious and easy to catch if you’re paying attention to it. The truly nefarious ones are when a word is perfectly ordinary and not a noun referring to something that doesn’t exist, but it’s etymology contains something that doesn’t exist. Wow these are subtle, but a great fantasy writer will make every effort to weed these out as well for consistency of tone.

Here’s one: quixotic (this is actually used in The Scions of Shannara, which I started reading, inspired by the show). It means foolishly impractical in the pursuit of ideals. But wait a second. The only reason it means that is because of Don Quixote. So if this book doesn’t exist in your setting, this word also doesn’t exist.

I’m torn on whether this is appropriate in Shannara. Since we know the book did exist, it seems okay. But still, it seems to conflict with the tone, since the prequels hadn’t been written yet, and we aren’t supposed to know it’s okay.

Measurement tends to be a judgment call. I could go either way. English and metric units definitely ruin consistency of tone, but this might be one of those “lesser of two evils” situations. If there is an easy way out, for example, use “two-day walk” instead of “eighteen miles,” always go with that. Sometimes you have to get creative enough that it ends up causing more confusion than it’s worth. My rule is to avoid precise measurement in that case, but there may be situations where it is needed.

As a final note, I’ll say this can go too far. Every writer has to decide for themselves where the cutoff is. Is “stoic” okay even though it originates from the ancient Greek school of philosophy Stoicism? I draw the line with these cases by allowing a third person narrator to use them if that narrator is clearly not someone in/from the world. A character is not allowed to think or say words that originate from a culture that didn’t exist in their setting.

Along the same lines, what about “philosophy?” The word itself is borrowed from Greek, and so if Greece doesn’t exist on their world, does this break tone? I’d say that’s going too far. Both narrators and characters are allowed to say borrowed words as long as the word isn’t in reference to a concrete person, place, movement, etc. You have to realize that most words in English are borrowed or have pretty clear traces from other languages, so you can’t remove all of these for practical reasons.

Anyway. Sorry for spoiling anything. The series got me thinking about this topic, and I realized I had never written about it.

Replies to Against Theory, Part 2

Continuing on with the responses to “Against Theory,” I was kind of excited to see that Richard Rorty wrote one. I’ve written about him on the blog, and he is one of my favorite philosophers. Here are my notes on Rorty’s “Philosophy Without Principles.”

Recall that the original Knapp-Michaels piece tried to take out E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validity in Interpretation. The main point of Rorty’s piece is to identify the philosophical first principles from which such an (anti-Hirsch) argument could be made. For the record, Rorty disagrees with Hirsch but also think the Knapp-Michaels approach did not succeed.

Rorty begins by pointing out that not everyone agrees with their assessment that a random string of symbols appearing to be language has no meaning if there was no authorial intent. H.P. Grice is one person in this camp. There is a more subtle question that still leaves some room for theory: “Granted that the sentence means such and such, did its author use it to mean that on this particular occasion?”

Rorty takes what seems to be a radical view here. He claims that anything should be counted as language if a human construes it as such (he even includes “an arrangement of stars” as an example).

Recall that Rorty is a pragmatist, so basically he wants to say that Knapp-Michaels are being wildly unpragmatic with their view that we must always identify an author before considering something that looks like language to be language (i.e. have meaning). How do they know that the random symbols in the sand at the beach have no meaning if they come across them and can’t tell if it is an accident or intended?

Trying to identify intrinsic properties is futile in a pragmatic framework. Rorty wants to forget the question of what was intended and instead examine the language in various contexts and describe the advantages/disadvantages as such. We can never “know” the true authorial intent as a pragmatic matter anyway.

This view is clearly against Hirsch and an argument “against theory” (stop theorizing and interpret already!). But I’m not sure how he escapes the paradox that by describing why he feels this way, he has laid out the foundation for a pragmatic “theory” of interpretation. It’s a Catch-22. No one has the answer to why we should be pragmatic without the theory to back it up.

Rorty tries to escape these endless circles by appealing to Heidegger and Derrida. The philosophers who developed theory have skewed the debate by the terms they’ve deemed important enough to study: intention/meaning/etc. This jargon is in place because of tradition, and we should first ask if we have any reason to continue to go along with it.

We can’t argue against theory by using the language of theory. The vocabulary must be changed first, and vocabulary doesn’t change through arguments. It changes because a new vocabulary comes into usage and serves the discussion better.

Rorty takes the view that we shouldn’t stop teaching theory, because it gives philosophers the opportunity to discuss novels, poems, and essays with literature students. It is wrong-headed for Knapp-Michaels to think of teaching theory as some sort of indoctrination into a particular view of interpretation that skips out on the actual interpretation of texts (personal note: I don’t blame them if you think back to the New Critical climate in which the original essay was written).

Knapp and Michaels actually wrote a direct response to the Rorty article entitled “A Reply to Richard Rorty: What is Pragmatism?” So now we’ll look at that. First, they clarify that they are not against making critical arguments about a text. We can analyze texts without engaging in “theory.” The theory they attack is the attempt “to stand outside practice in order to govern practice from without.”

Without going further yet, I have to insert my own reservations about this. I get the distinction, but they seem to run into the same epistemological problems they worry about in the original article. Sure, you can do some analysis, but I’m worried how you’ll know it makes any sense without some theoretical grounding. It’s sort of like saying: do math, no wait, stop formulating a theory, just manipulate the symbols, what do you mean you want to make sure you’ve done something legitimate?

Next they push back on the issue of “an author” vs “its author” (this was discussed last time). Knapp-Michaels reiterate that the same set of words authored by various people can have different meanings (one can’t help but think of Borges’ Pierre Menard here). This is because these are different texts. It is problematic to refer to the same text having different (even if fictional) authors.

Knapp and Michaels make a very strong case that the its/an distinction is irrelevant. When someone says “fire,” they could be talking about burning or discharging a weapon or terminating someone’s employment or any number of things. The only meaning that matters in interpretation is the one intended by the speaker. To even contemplate alternate meanings that “an” author could have meant is at best a masturbatory indulgence and at worst a complete waste of time.

Well, I think I’m done with this series of posts for now. I had planned on doing more, but I’m finding this quite tedious and exhausting. For now, I land somewhere in between the pragmatist and Hirsch viewpoints. On the pragmatic side, it does seem a waste to contemplate intentionless meanings. On the Hirsch side, we need some sort of foundation and theory to work out a range of valid interpretations (we get a range because we can never truly know the intention of the author).

That vs Which: examples that compare apples to apples, which will help you out.

Many people take the loose view that grammar and language evolves over time, and therefore you should go with whatever sounds right. Others argue the that/which distinction has basically disappeared. I want to do a comparison to prove once and for all the distinction is necessary. It isn’t preference. They aren’t interchangeable. The meaning of the sentence gets changed by swapping one for the other.

Let me be clear. I am not some obsessive grammar person. I kind of suck at it. But the way people dismiss this point as unimportant and a matter of personal taste (including professional editors!) drives me crazy. It isn’t taste. It’s important.

Many great sources fail miserably in describing the difference between that and which. I’m looking at you Grammar Girl (I love you for everything else) and you Chicago Manual of Style (an excellent doorstop as well). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a source that gives you the same sentence with “that” and “which” swapped to show the distinction. Everyone has one sentence with “that” to show the use and then a different sentence with “which” to show the use. How is that helpful? It’s like comparing apples to oranges.

Let’s start simple.

Example 1: I played with the marbles, which were blue.

When you use which, you imply that every single marble was blue. This is what is meant by “which is nonrestrictive.” You aren’t restricting your attention to just the blue ones out of a bunch of colors. You’re saying they were all blue. This implication matters. Consider what happens with a simple substitute of “that.”

Example 2: I played with the marbles that were blue.

This sentence has a totally different meaning! “That” implies you have a bunch of marbles of all sorts of different colors in front of you, but you’ve decided to only play with the ones that were blue. This is what is meant by “that is restrictive” or “that is essential.”

Example 3: The puppies, which were cute, ran across the yard.
Example 4: The puppies that were cute ran across the yard.

In example 3, all the puppies ran across the yard. It just so happens they were also all cute. In example 4, only some of the puppies were cute, and only those few puppies ran across the yard. Read these over and over until it makes sense.

Now be horrified at all the times you used these incorrectly and probably implied something you didn’t mean to (did you seriously just imply there are non-cute puppies? Are you sure?). Now look what you’ve done. He’s self-conscious:

Some people argue it’s the comma causing this change in meaning and not that/which. Walk away from that argument. You’ve found someone wrong on the internet, and it isn’t worth your time to engage them. They’re probably a troll anyway. What’s more probable: the distinction made for hundreds of years in a rigorous way still retains some meaning or the words have no meaning anymore and the meaning has magically shifted to comma usage even though the words are still there? Think about it.

I’ve seen a bunch of rules for trying to distinguish between that and which. To me, they’re all pretty terrible. Here’s the easiest rule, which will work 99% of the time.

Step 1: What noun comes before that/which?
Step 2: Does the thing after that/which apply to all of [insert Step 1 answer] or just the ones you’ve described?
Step 3: If Step 2 answer is “all,” use which. If Step 2 answer is “only those described,” use that.

Officially, I wanted to end the post here, but I just know that someone is going to complain I’ve only told you how to tell the difference between that/which when they distinguish between restrictive/nonrestrictive clauses. Not only is the other type of distinction easier, I’m much less concerned with it. Here things can be a bit more stylistic, because the use (often) doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

Rule: If you can delete the stuff after that/which without causing confusion, use which. Otherwise, use that.

These examples are slightly harder to give, because they often require context to know if the information is needed.

Example 5: I went to the store, which had roast beef.
Example 6: I went to the store that had roast beef.

If you’re writing a story and there’s only one store. You can delete “which had roast beef” without confusion. The clause “which had roast beef” is inessential. The store just happens to have it. No big deal.

If the story is about a person who must get a serial killer roast beef or they will kill again, and they find out that three of the four stores in their area are out, then “that had roast beef” specifies which of the four stores you went to. It’s essential information, because if you delete it, the reader will think: which store? Are they wasting time picking up some quinoa pasta at the Whole Foods when they need to be getting to the roast beef store?

As you can see, the meaning doesn’t change all that much if you use the wrong one here, but there’s still a correct choice between the two words. If you play fast and loose with this distinction, puppies aren’t going to start hiding their faces, so the stakes aren’t as high.

And there you have it. Some comparisons that actually make sense. I hope that helped.

Validity in Interpretation Chapter 5

You know the drill by now. These are just notes from my reading of E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validity in Interpretation. We have finally reached the last chapter. The main thrust of this last chapter is on how to tell whether our interpretation is valid. It rehashes a lot of stuff we’ve already covered, and it gives some examples of putting the theory to use.

The first point is that we can often trick ourselves into self-validating an invalid interpretation. Hirsch doesn’t use the term, but this is a direct rephrasing of confirmation bias to literary interpretation. If we go into a text thinking it must mean something, then try to find confirmation of this interpretation, we will always find it and will overlook conflicting evidence. This is not the correct way to validate an interpretation (or anything for that matter!).

We are led back to the hermeneutic circle, because some of the evidence will only appear after a hypothesis about the interpretation has been formed. In the next section, Hirsch doesn’t say this, but he essentially argues for a Bayesian theory of interpretation. The process of validation is to take all the hypotheses and then figure out which one is most likely correct based on the evidence. As new evidence comes in, we revise our view.

All that matters are the relative probabilities. Sometimes two interpretations are equally likely, and then we say both are valid. The point is not to have one victorious theory, but to have a way to measure how likely each is in terms of the others.

Personal Note: Whenever someone brings up probabilistic reasoning in the arts (or even history) the same sorts of objections get raised. The assignment of a probability is arbitrary. You can make up whatever priors you want to skew the results in favor of your pet interpretation. These are very recent debates that came decades after this book was published. Surprisingly, Hirsch gives the same answers to these objections that we still give.

First, we already speak in probabilities when analyzing interpretations. I think it is “extremely unlikely” that the word “plastic” means the modern substance in this 1744 poem, because it hadn’t been invented yet. It is “likely” that this poem is about the death of a loved one, because much of Donne’s work is about death. These statements assign relative probabilities to the likelihood of the interpretation, but they try to mask this.

By clearly stating what we are doing, and coming up with actual quantities that can be disputed and argued for, we make our reasoning more explicit and less likely to error. If we pretend that we are not dealing with probabilities, then our arguments and reasoning become sloppy.

As usual, when determining probabilities, we need to figure out the narrowest class that the work under consideration fits in. A good clarifying example is the broad classification of women vs men. Women live longer on average than men. But when we pick a specific woman and a specific man, it would be insane to argue that the woman will probably live longer based only on that broad class. If we note that the woman is a sedentary smoker with lung cancer, and the man is an Olympic marathon runner, then these narrower classes improve our probability judgments.

This was the point of having an entire chapter on genre. We must analyze the intrinsic genre of a work to find the narrowest class that it fits in. This gives us a prior probability for certain types of interpretation. Then we can continue the analysis, updating our views as we encounter more or less evidence.

Hirsch then goes on to talk about the principle of falsifiability as we know it from science. Rather than confirming our hypothesis, we should come up with plausible evidence that would conclusively falsify the interpretation. He goes on to give a bunch of subtle examples that would take a lot of time to explain here. For simplicity, we could go back to the plastic example. If a poem dates before 1907, then any interpretation that requires the substance meaning of the word plastic is false.

He ends the section by reminding us that we always have to think in context. There are no rules of interpretation that can be stated generally and be practical in all situations. There are always exceptions. The interpretive theory in this book is meant as a starting point or provisional guide. This is also true of all methods of interpretation (think of people who always do a “Marxist reading” or “feminist reading” of a text).

I’ll end with a quote:

“While there is not and cannot be any method or model of correct interpretation, there can be a ruthlessly critical process of validation to which many skills and many hands may contribute. Just as any individual act of interpretation comprises both a hypothetical and a critical function, so the discipline of interpretation also comprises the having of ideas and the testing of them.”

Chomsky

I’ve decided to start reading Chomsky’s pivotal book Syntactic Structures, since I’m into the phil language thing and it was a really important work. This post is going to be sillyness, but it was something I couldn’t get out of my head while attempting to read past the first couple sentences.

“Each language has a finite number of phonemes (or letters in its alphabet) and each sentence is representable as a finite sequence of these phonemes (or letters), though there are infinitely many sentences.”

Now we encounter “free structures” all the time in math. It is perfectly legitimate to create something with an infinite number of elements from just stringing together a finite alphabet. In fact, you can impose lots of structure such as the free group on two generators. This “language” only has an alphabet of two, must satisfy group axioms, and ignores triviality (must be fully reduced), yet still achieves an infinite number of words (not even sentences, but words).

I must argue, though, that there are not “infinitely many sentences.” I don’t think it would be controversial to claim that there are a finite number of words in a language. Take English, for example. Use the good old OED plus maybe a slang dictionary and throw in a couple thousand for good measure as an upper bound on the number of words in the language.

This number of words is huge, though finite. When we generate sentences, if we do so in the “free” way, then we clearly get an infinite number. Now I’m not so concerned with “grammatically” correct sentences, as I am with imposing conditions on repetition. The sentence “the dog ran dog ran” is pointless. Due to repetition, I argue that there must then be some upper bound on the length of the longest sentence possible (to continue the group analogy, this is like the “free presentation” with restrictions like \{a : a^3=1 \}=\mathbb{Z}_3).

To make this easier, let’s reduce our sentences to ones that are not conjunctions of two complete sentences (if former is finite, then so is the latter). Now a sentence can only be so long (non-conjunctively), say you use basically every word in the language a couple of times (which I find hard to believe that you would still have a “sentence” at that point). So now we have an upper bound of, I don’t know, a couple billion words in a sentence. This would give us on the order of a couple billion factorial number of sentences. This is absurdly large (and an absurdly overestimate in my opinion), but still finite.

Despite having zero relevance to your book Mr. Chomsky, I must respectfully disagree with your opening lines. What does everyone else think?

The Pernicious Influence

According to Gian-Carlo Rota, mathematics has had a pernicious influence on philosophy (in The Pernicious Influence of Mathematics on Philosophy). I agree with the overall theme of the essay, yet most of the details I take issue with. First off, I think subjective phrases such “This confused state of affairs makes philosophical reasoning more difficult but far more rewarding [than mathematics],” need to be cut. First off, I think most people would say that mathematics is more difficult than philosophy. Then, how much reward you take in doing it is completely dependent upon the person. OK. On to real issues, though.

Rota claims that this pernicious influence of clearly defining terms and using mathematical logic to create rigorous arguments is a purely 20th century invention. We should return to our philosophical roots where this was not done. I disagree. Look at Spinoza. I’ve never even read a mathematical paper that rigorous before. I’m sure there are more as well. They just aren’t coming to mind. Thus, I believe that mathematical logic has been present all along. We just didn’t really have a name or symbolic form for it.

I really liked the idea of circularity in mathematics. This pernicious influence is not the fault of mathematicians. It is the fault of philosophers that misunderstand what it is that mathematicians do. They don’t randomly create definitions, and then randomly manipulate logically. Definitions are motivated by need and justified by use. At this time I would like to point out that this is the precise argument that Corfield makes in Towards a Philosophy of Real Mathematics to shift from the group definition as primary to monoid as primary since this is more natural. I wish mathematicians would let go of tradition in this sense and allow the better definitions to come forward (like categories as opposed to sets and monoids as opposed to groups).

My last comment is on the fact that the main argument seems to be that philosophers don’t need the same precision and logic as mathematicians, because they are different disciplines. I disagree in a sense. I believe that philosophers do need the precision, but there is a problem: language is inherently imprecise (see the post Uncertainty II), so there is no possible way to do what mathematicians do. This isn’t bad or anything. I just think that that should have been the way to argue it. It is impossible to properly define terms as opposed to it is unnecessary to define terms.

Uncertainty II

Well, I’ve been thinking about that first uncertainty post a little throughout the day and here is what I came up with. Why does this only have to hold for the Tao? There are really two schools of though on philosophy of language dealing with the meaning of words. The one says that words are defined in terms of the system in which they are used, and the other is that words are defined in terms of other words.

Either way, words are a superposition of other things. We can almost take quantum mechanics now as a special case of Wittgenstein and Kripke. They say that everything is language. Without language nothing would exist, including consciousness. It is how we think. So maybe the uncertainty in a wavefunction of a particle is really due to the fact that their is uncertainty in the superposition of terms describing it. When we pinpoint the terms and collapse the wavefuntion, it is no longer uncertain. This is the case for every physical object. They exist and are concrete precisely because we have named them and collapsed the wavefunction.

Probably lots of holes with this since I haven’t thought about it much, but I think there might be something there.

Philosophical interests

So I guess I’ll just do a single post on each of the four topics that this blog is on to give an overview of my interests in that area. Here goes for philosophy.

I have lots of interests here, since I believe this is probably the main way in which each of the subjects cross-over. First off: Philosophy of Consciousness. This is a sort of minor philosophical interest with major intersection potential with physics/quantum mechanics. Is consciousness necessary to collapse a probabilistic wavefunction?

A major interest would be Philosophy of Language. How does language affect how we perceive things and think about things? Is mathematics a language? Do different languages make it easy to understand certain concepts in math? Does changing the language of math make it easier to solve certain problems? I think even the uninitiated would answer definitive “yes”s to these last two questions, but why and how? This leads to my next interest.

Philosophy of Aesthetics. Technically this is what my undergrad thesis was in. It is definitely the most elusive of my interests (we’ll see why in the next paragraph). This clearly is about how philosophy and art coincide. Can mathematics be considered an art form? Combining the phil consciousness, language, and aesthetics: how does changing the language of math affect how we think about problems and how we perceive the beauty of problems. Eventually I’ll post either all of or parts of my thesis which is a gigantic exploration of that question.

Finally, I’d like to point out that I started as an analytic philosopher. This is essentially philosophy done solely on clearly defined terms and logical manipulation/arguments using these terms. I have since become more of a continental philosopher . This is more of showing artistically why things must be true. Terms are usually considered to be more ambiguous, and arguments not as logical (hence a “lower” form of philosophy).

Here is why I not only think that continental philosophy is not “lower”, but is actually a much higher form of philosophy. Suppose you want to argue for Wittgenstein’s view of language. You could do this in a 300,000 page rigorous logical argument, but you probably wouldn’t convince very many people. In fact, even those that you do convince would probably still not know why it is true, just that it is true from a logical perspective. Compare this to reading David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System. Not only would you become convinced of the truth of Wittgenstein’s argument, you would see why it must be true in your life.

Ah…This is a rant for another day, though.