1. Hwaigon
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    Hwaigon Contributing Member Reviewer

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    The "Old Professor" Phenomenon

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Hwaigon, Dec 23, 2014.

    So I read in a sci-fi The Day of the Triffids a professor's speech reflecting the upcoming changes in society, following the Triffids' outbreak. Although maybe not a studied sociologist, Wyndham did a good job of speaking for the sociologist.

    This got me reminded of a phenomenon I uncovered while pondering writing, character development, his experience, etc., namely that the in-book character may be proficient at something the author of the story is not. How do you bridge this gap, this disconnect?

    I find it difficult to describe vividly sth I've never experienced which the MC is experiencing. Imagination is key here, no doubt, but is imagination itself enough?

    I'm not a martial arts' master and so when describing combat particularities, I may miss a key aspect of combat, one that a skilled combatant
    would count number one in importance.

    I can foretell your answer; even with extensive research taken into account, would I able to describe a real-life surgeon suffering from insomnia?
     
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2014
  2. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have read a couple of books where characters are discussing my area of expertise (managing construction projects) and the following tends to happen: -

    They discuss the blindingly obvious in great detail using overly technical terms. The sort of language that would instantly mark someone as "green" and make you wonder if they are actually qualified to do their job or have spent a day scrolling through Wikipedia. Frankly if someone were to utter some of this dialogue in a meeting the general response would be "yes we know, can you stop wasting everyone's fucking time".

    Of course this is sometimes required for exposition or simply to bring a layman up to speed, but generally it isn't. If you watch a procedural crime drama, for example, you will see dialogue between two experts, to which the only reasonable response would be "yes I know you condescending prick, it is my job!".
     
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  3. Hwaigon
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    Hwaigon Contributing Member Reviewer

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    Interesting probe, thanx for the insight.
    You're right about the crime drama; seen from the other side, how do you portray a construction engineer by not throwing around hackneyed phrases here and there?
     
  4. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well to get a bit boring: - Taking an engineer as an example, there will be certain criteria you want to achieve, as an example you would want a certain floor to ceiling height allowing for a raised access floor and suspended ceiling with a void of sufficient depth to incorporate a given air-conditioning system and with columns that will not interfere with the fit-out/ use of the building (preferably as few as possible and as slender as possible), within the planning requirements for the height and bulk of the building and with sufficient lettable floor space that the figures stack up for the funders. Then the only thing that matters is whether or not this is achievable and where the columns will be placed. If he started going into detail about where the re-bars sit in the slab or quoting sections of the Building Regs he had to adhere to in his design everyone would be telling him to shut up- that is his area of expertise and his insurance on the line. (unless of course these issues adversely impacted the design, then an explanation maybe required).

    So the engineer's input may be "we can achieve a 2800mm floor to ceiling height with a 150mm floor void and a 800mm ceiling void and 400mm slabs". That's it, job done, no further explanation required, even though the process leading to this point involved a lot of complex maths and computer programmes.
     
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2014
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  5. Hwaigon
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    Hwaigon Contributing Member Reviewer

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    I see...well I certainly wouldn't have balls to go into that detail, what you suggest surpasses my knowledge alright.

    So, what's left is the plot and characters.
     
  6. Charisma
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    Charisma Transposon Contributor

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    Whenever I've had to write about areas of expertise I did not understand (and I do that a lot to myself--off the top of my head, none of main characters have been doctors/biotechnologists/psychologists, a handful have been writers, but most others have been physicists, architects, businessmen and other professions with little relevance to me), I try to understand it, even if just for the heck of it. Sometimes even a basic introduction in the area is good enough to at least feign expertise--like the other person said, it is really more about using the right jargon rather than discovering the Higgs Boson, and you don't want to saturate the reader with so much information that toss your novel straight out the window. So yeah, maybe read up an introductory lecture about your topic of interest, so that you're conceptually clear and equipped to use some of the jargon appropriately...if you're really concerned, take a short course.
     
  7. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    You do research into what your character should know as an expert engineer/surgeon/lawyer. And then use NONE of it!

    Any of Dick Francis' novels tend to lean over into the expertise of another area, and there's usually an acknowledgement for his advisor. One book he has his MC travel by punt down the Thames. To add atmosphere, his approach frightens a heron, which "stalks arthritically away"...as a river user who has on a number of occasions frightened a heron, they DON'T stalk way, they fly. I guess he thought he knew and didn't bother doing any research.
     
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  8. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    The best thing you can possibly do, while writing about something you don't know well, is obviously do research beforehand. That should get you over the biggest bumps. However, the second best thing you can do is find a beta reader who IS an expert in that area. Ask them specifically to look for stuff that wouldn't work.

    It might be an idea to do this early in your editing process, so if they find some huge hole in your presentation, you will still be able to fix it without ruining your entire story.

    I have a section in my book that requires medical knowledge, and I had a doctor friend read my first draft (one of two 'first' betas,) She went through the entire section and told me what she would have done, as a doctor, in the same circumstances. (A doctor in the late 1800s working with very little equipment.) Lots of stuff I never would have thought of—incredibly helpful input. It was great to know, as I move on, that an 'expert' had gone over my MS with such attention and corrected a few glaring mistakes.
     
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  9. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    Well, no one can know everything, and while every heron I've surprised has flown away, I suppose you could come upon one that's tired or injured.

    The problem, for me as a reader, is when the author doesn't have expertise in an area that the character must. Since I read a lot of mystery and suspense, this most often happens when the subject is firearms. When a police officer or military character refers to rounds of ammunition as 'bullets', for example, my faith in the author's knowledge is diminished, and I don't think I can trust him/her to get right the aspects of the story where I don't have expertise. Ruins the book for me.

    There are authors who seem to use their novels solely as a way of providing the reader with (usually too much) information about something the author has obviously researched. Sorry, I can't think of her name, but there's a writer who writes police procedurals set in New York City. Her last two books included every possible thing you might want to know about the history and description of Central Park and Grand Central Station, respectively. Some interesting stuff, but the 'education' overwhelms the mundane stories.

    Edit: Having done my own research, the author I described is Linda Fairstein.
     
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  10. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah, unfortunately the reality of these jobs is usually far too tedious to warrant a great deal of attention.
     
  11. Hwaigon
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    Hwaigon Contributing Member Reviewer

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    Sure there are areas of expertise one can read on and there are those that only experts have an insight into. I don't by any means underestimate the importance of research but there are things you can't even with best of will. Have an expert read the story is one option.

    The issue is more complex than I thought, it seems.
     
  12. Hwaigon
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    Hwaigon Contributing Member Reviewer

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    The reality of most jobs is far too tedious to warrant any attention at all. It was King who said "Most people have stories behind them and most of those stories are boring."

    What I was trying to say in my initial post is that, beyond the tedium of an engineer's job, he would be intellectually equipped
    the way a linguistically oriented person wouldn't, thus, if writing about an engineer, he might miss some of the very basics of such job...right?
     
  13. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Reading your last post now as well, the question also seems to address something I read mentioned about Enders Game. The kids are all supposed to be freakishly genius. The story picks up at the tail end of finding these needles in the human haystack and prepping them for the coming attack. How do you write freakishly genius kids, when you the writer (in this case Orson Scott Card) are bright, but you're not freakishly genius. How do you write a quality into a character that you not only don't possess, it's a quality that cannot be learned or studied. You either have it or you don't. Am I on the right track here, or am I missing the question?

    BTW, in Card's case with Enders Game, the answer is you just say they're geniuses and then write in a few clever, but not Hawking-level, examples.
     
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  14. Hwaigon
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    Hwaigon Contributing Member Reviewer

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    @Wreybies
    "How do you write a quality into a character that you not only don't possess, it's a quality that cannot be learned or studied. You either have it or you don't. Am I on the right track here, or am I missing the question?"

    You're exactly on the right track. That was exactly what I was thinking; how do you credibly describe sth unknown to you.

    I guess it takes a genius to simulate such experience/quality. And since I'm not one, I'll have to do with trying my best.
     
  15. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    It reminds me of that film, Limitless; where the protagonist takes a drug to make him hyper-intelligent. This is shown by him learning a foreign language, writing a novel in a day, and becoming an even more smug and irritating version of James Bond. Frankly the protagonist is an insufferable tit; and if hyper intelligence means you can't recognise this quite ugly trait than I can manage without it. Oh, and he gets a new haircut and buys a new suit.
     
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  16. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Isn't that what we always do? :) I think I write credible female characters. I'm not a woman. I think I write credible straight male characters. I'm gay. I don't know what it is to be a woman, but I experience womanness in the world around me. I don't know what it is to be a straight man, but they are all around me and are my friends.

    I actually have a similar issue to yours in the short story I am currently working. It's a what if story. It's a day in the life of a fellah and his wife 5 days after an event has happened that everyone is calling the deletion. It affects the whole world. The deletion is palpable and present in the form of all the void it leaves behind, both physical and mental, psychological, linguistic, everything that has to do with the thing that was deleted is obvious by all the white spaces and empty plazas across the globe. The thing is religion. I'm not writing the story to be an ass toward religious people. It's an experiment in the idea of thought process and language that came to me after a conversation I had with @Lemex about a book I like very much. I'm very sympathetic toward my MC. Everyone in the world is affected by the deletion at a level commensurate to how much religion was a part of their day to day life. My MC was a minister and thus is heavily affected. He and his wife have no idea what he does for a living. He has difficulty even speaking because large parts of his vocabulary and thought processes no longer exist. He can't even say or even think the words "Holy Shit" because that phrase and that thought are sourced from blaspheme, which is part of the religious paradigm, and so deleted. No one can even think that thought. It no longer exists.

    My struggle is that I am not a religious person. I'm an atheist. Feeling faith in the religious sense is a known unknown to me. My goal is to try and understand my MC and how this event has affected him and how he tries to come to terms with what has happened.
     
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  17. Hwaigon
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    Hwaigon Contributing Member Reviewer

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    Well, as a religious person, I'd say if a deeply integrated faith is at stake, feeling like being in someone elses shoes digs it. Or a total, inner alienation. Adopting the conditions you set, if it was a deeply religious person, I'd think he'd comit suicide in matter of days.
     
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  18. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    And I ask honestly and without irony because this really is a story I am working, and maybe in helping me, I can help you back since we are dealing with similar dynamics as writers: Why would he commit suicide? He wouldn't know that he had lost his faith. There would be nothing to reference. A person who felt that their faith was suddenly gone, but still understood faith and remembered what it felt like to have faith, yes, this person I can see taking their life, but if all frame of reference to the paradigm of faith were removed, even the word itself, he couldn't mourn the loss of faith in particular, though clearly, in my story, he realizes that the thing that was deleted was something in which he was involved since it affects his loss of memory and thought process so much more than others (to include even his wife).
     
  19. Hwaigon
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    Hwaigon Contributing Member Reviewer

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    By all means. I guess you've worked your way through to the answer later-on in your comment; though he might not know the concept anymore, he would feel he is missing something, as you pointed out. It's not like we say to ourselves "let's practice faith" and check all the activities that define it, rather, we practice in a certain ways, to which we refer to as faith.

    Put yet differently: though you would lose a memory of someone close to you, I have no doubt you would somehow feel you're missing someone close to your heart. You can substitute faith by anything deeply ingrained (any knowledge you're sure of). Faith creates emotional reactions, too.

    This is also supported by one of the mainstays of 1984: you may subjectively feel something to which you can not relate verbally (linguistically). But the non-existence of the term does not rule out the experience of the existence of a phenomenon itself. It was like that with the first people, they would first experience things, then relate to them verbally.

    You are perfectly right about the proportion of the degree of integrity of faith to the damage caused by the loss of faith. I'm in one with you on this. I believe the man would attempt at committing suicide, simply because religious conduct has been a substantial part of his life, if not his whole life. The prospect of losing faith is equal to losing life, thus to this man life would have no purpose and we know life which has no purpose is unbearable to an individual.

    In addition to all the above, I think you will have to define what faith is for that particular person, so that you know whether he really loses what is the general (accepted) notion of faith. Whether it's just the superficial experience of attending services or whether it's something more...profound; losing this profoundity would make him hollow, empty.

    Hope this helped.
     
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  20. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Now that is something to chew on. ;) I will be back.
     
  21. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'm writing a genius, and yes, I'm a bit worried he won't come off intelligent enough, but I'll try to do my best. It requires a lot of thinking for me to come up with something he should be able to think up way faster, and his decisions have to make sense. When I can, I pester my brother who's so bright his brain-power has made him bald (my theory) so that this character would at least come off believable.

    I remember reading Brent Weeks' (a fantasy author) blog post on this subject a few years ago where he said that if you can, try to get to do the things you're writing about. Sure, you'll be a dilettante at best, but you might be able to create a credible facsimile of, well, credibility. Not that I'm planning to go to space or have sex with a woman, but there're things I can and am willing to do to get a feel of something my characters do. I know it's not much, but after copious amounts of research done on fencing and medieval hand to hand combat in addition to several interviews, I also did join up on a course. I'm not good, not even proficient, but I got a better idea of combat in that period than if I hadn't done it. I also tried archery when I felt the research wasn't enough. It's fun to use writing as an "excuse" to try new things. :)

    So if you can try something out irl, do. It's not that expensive to e.g. join a Krav Maga class if you're interested in reality based self-defense or book an hour or two at a shooting range if you're writing about characters who handle firearms. You won't lose anything, even though tasters won't make you an expert.

    As for whether Weeks' own advice works for him. His novels are pretty good and I suppose they're as realistic as fantasy can get.
     
  22. Hwaigon
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    Hwaigon Contributing Member Reviewer

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    LOL I actually attend a Krav Maga class and have tried shooting with a Glock, as my friend has a license :D
    Yes, I get your point, it's a good one. Come to think of it, my friend is a real brain and studies medicine, so I might bombard him with silly questions in the future :D
    (meh)
     
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  23. Charisma
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    @Hwaigon has done a good job of delineating what the absence of religion could do, in differing degrees, to different people, and what needs to be considered. I'd just add that religion oftentimes is not just a ceremonial side gig or an excuse for holidays for some people (and for many, it is!); it can vary from being a part of someone's identity (just like a part of your identity is being a Puerto Rican), part of someone's philosophy of life, to being the very purpose of life. Many people, I personally believe, have some anchor of purpose which they hang on to as their pivot, may it be hedonism, materialism, freedom, etc. Not everyone may be as clear about it, but we definitely orient ourselves to "something" which explains why we bother to get up out of bed each day and not just pull the trigger.

    So yes, the absence of religion from someone who based his purpose of life on it would make him very suicidal, though he may or may not kill himself (to commit suicide, one needs not only cognitive and emotional basis but also other behavioral characteristics which may or may not define this individual); it might instead, result in chronic depression, anxiety and possibly other psychological disorders. It also is bound to have far-reaching influence on society, economy, literature, media, technological innovation, you name it. Possibly-possibly--no stringent ethics code, since many modern day legislation derive from the Ten Commandments, and though we have had many philosophical influences too, they've also been at least partly influenced by religion. And one could argue that ethics are innate and were distorted by religion. Anyway. That's just my two huge cents :D

    Also, to the broader query at hand, I'm going to reiterate what I said at a different thread and what @Wreybies said--I can't recall a single story authored by me which there was a young, Pakistani girl whose specialty was life sciences or social sciences. Most of my protagonists are male. My most interesting character (whom I actually made on this site during RPing) was a Jewish, Spanish pimp in his late 30s. The closest I've gone to my own personality is a young Pakistani woman in her 40s who happens to be a serial killer. XD The art of the writer is believable deceit.
     
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  24. Hwaigon
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    Hwaigon Contributing Member Reviewer

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    Nicely expanded indeed.
    I did fail to include in my comment other behavioral traits the loss of faith would entail. Good objectivity on your side :)
     

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