Your characters’ memories and perception of time

Richard Restak’s article “Empathy and Other Mysteries” in the Winter 2011 issue of American Scholar contains a variety of insights from neuroscience. He didn’t address fiction writers, but fiction writers should take note.

  • When you say that “Next Wednesday’s staff meeting has been moved forward two days,” some people will believe that the new day is Monday and others will believe it is Friday. Yet if you say it was pushed forward two days, everyone will agree that it is Friday. Why? “Spatial and temporal information are processed differently within the brain,” he says. Spatial information is processed in “the frontal and parietal lobes,” while temporal information “doesn’t really have a clearly defined location in the brain.” It turns out that people who choose Monday have a “time-moving perspective,” in which they “conceive of time as coming toward you,” while people who choose Friday have an “ego-moving perspective,” and “think of yourself as moving forward through time.” People who have just gotten off an airplane will choose Friday, “having experienced themselves during their flight as moving forward from their initial to their final destination.”
  • When we are bored (for example, at a monotonous job, or sick in bed), we perceive time as moving slowly, but when that period ends, it seems that the time raced by. That’s because not much happened and there is little to remember, so it seems that we barely had that time at all. By contrast, when we are entertained, we perceive time as racing by, but when that period ends, it seems that a lot of time passed. That’s because we remember a series of events and we imagine that there must have been a lot of time to fit them all in.
  • Sometimes we are mistaken about the timing of cause and effect. We are used to adjusting for perceptual delays of light and sound, and this system can be fooled so that we perceive the “beginning” of something after it has actually begun. Quoting Eva Hoffman’s Time (2009): “No matter how much we may feel that our thought takes weightless flight, or that its velocity transcends time, mental processes work within biological materiality and have actual duration.”
  • People are easily misled into “remembering” something that didn’t happen. Often all that needs to be done is to tell them a story about themselves or show them an edited photograph of themselves. Later, when the false memory is revealed as fictional, it may nonetheless be difficult for the person to give it up. This “suggests the experience of a kind of double bookkeeping system within the brain whereby it’s possible for us to believe that something is true when intellectually we recognize that it is not.”

memory

How can these insights be used by fiction writers?

  • Think about how you can portray time as coming toward a person or as a person as moving through time. These are subjective states for your character.
  • Think about how rapidly events happen within your character’s timeline and whether they perceive their life as passing slowly or quickly during the events or after the events.
  • Just because you know the sequence of rapid-fire events doesn’t mean your character has to perceive them that way in the moment nor remember them that way later.
  • Just because the truth has been revealed to your character doesn’t mean they can easily give up their false memories and false narratives to the contrary.

All of these insights can apply to your consideration of your readers, too!

A talk with Skye Yvonne, author of ‘Astraethea’

laila_winters

Today I talk with Skye Yvonne, author of the YA novel Astraethea, the first book in a planned series. She’s also known online as Laila Winters. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon, and her website. – Tucker Lieberman

T.L.: You provide a lot of sensory detail about this world. It seems like a place that the reader could step into. Do you ever feel yourself immersed in this imaginary place?

S.Y.: Astraethea is a world I see so clearly in my own mind that it’s hard not to become immersed in it. I think for any author, it’s almost impossible to not lose themselves in the worlds that they create—that’s the fun part about creating them. If we can’t dive into our own worlds and immerse ourselves in what we’ve built, then we can’t expect our readers to, either.

T.L.: What’s the significance—for us, as readers interpreting the story—of fighting people from Earth? How did you decide to take that perspective?

S.Y.: I love this question because in the very first draft of Astraethea, there was no conflict between the Astraetheans and the Earthlings. The humans truly did come to Astraethea seeking refuge, and Selene initially granted it to them. During revisions, though, I felt that Astraethea was lacking any true conflict beyond unrest and dissent between Selene’s councilors.

I scrapped the entire first draft of the book, and the second, and started fresh on the third. As far as the humans are concerned and conflict aside, Valor and Zaegan became the reason for their significance. They represent different sides of humanity: Valor the best, and Zaegan the worst.

Val ultimately causes the most turmoil at the very end of the book, but he doesn’t come out of it unscathed. His struggles and redemption in book two are important, both symbolically and for his character arc.

That, and if humans ever discovered extraterrestrial life, I’d imagine we’d be brazen enough to go storming in and disrupt whatever peace they might have.

T.L.: I noticed themes of loyalty and persistence. Is there a virtue that feels especially important to you in this story?

S.Y.: Given the betrayal on the very last page of the book, loyalty is especially important throughout the story. The characters are all deeply loyal to one another; Caly is so willing to rush into battle alongside her brother just to have his back that she nearly gets herself killed. Valor goes against his own morals and does the one thing he swore he’d never do just to protect the only friend he has. Loyalty is a core part of who they all are, except for Zaegan who’s loyal to no one but himself.

T.L.: Did you read any stories with LGBT characters when you were a teenager?

S.Y.: Unfortunately, no. Not only were stories featuring LGBT characters relatively unheard of when I was a kid, but I was also very, very deep in the closet. I did read a lot of LGBT fanfiction in secret, though, and writing an LGBT fic was how I first started experimenting with the idea that maybe I truly was in some self-imposed closet.

T.L.: Within the story, you don’t use the word “lesbian” to describe the relationship between the Queen and the Warrior. Is there a reason for that?

S.Y.: There was no reason, no. In their world, society views love and sexuality in a very different way. The prejudices and homophobia that people have here on Earth don’t exist on Astraethea; it’s not taboo or even unheard of for people of the same sex (or of any combination of gender, including our favorite non-binary Kodoreans) to love one another. Because it’s so widely accepted, I doubt there’s even a word in the Astraethean language that describes it or that can be used to self-identify one’s sexuality.

If Caly and Selene were to come to Earth and discover that there were people who disapproved of their relationship simply because they’re both female, I think they would be very, very confused. And Caly might stab them.

Spoiler: there’s a scene in book two where Valor refers to Caly as a lesbian (because for readers who enjoyed book one, who’s not waiting for this confrontation?), and she asks him what ‘lesbian’ even means.

AstraetheaT.L.: Did your story eventually take any turns you didn’t expect when you first started out?

S.Y.: I’m just the author—my characters do what they want, and I simply write it down. Astraethea took so many unexpected turns that it nearly gave me whiplash. The biggest turn, I think, is that in the first two drafts of the Astraethea, Valor’s character didn’t exist. He was always the one who pulled that trigger in the end, but I decided to add his POV throughout the book during one of my final revisions. Val ended up becoming one of my favorite characters, and I hope that by giving him a name, my readers enjoyed him and his story just as much as I did.

T.L.: What other space travel or fantasy stories do you enjoy?

S.Y.: I actually don’t read a lot of sci-fi, and Astraethea likely suffered a bit because of that. YA fantasy is more up my alley; give me magic and fairies and mythical creatures and I am one happy girl.

T.L.: What is most satisfying to you about the Astraethea saga?

S.Y.: Perhaps it makes me a bit vain, but I’m pretty satisfied that Astraethea has been well-received amongst my readers. I self-published the book after 40 rejections (though I received a revise & resubmit offer last month), and I was so afraid that the book was going to fail because I didn’t have the money or resources that are ultimately needed to make a self-published novel successful. And by no means is Astraethea “successful,” but it’s done better than I ever anticipated. It warms my heart knowing that people enjoy what I refer to as my “space gays.”

On a less arrogant note, I’m pretty satisfied with where the series is headed! I’m focusing on the R&R right now in hopes that the agent might pick it up, but I’m excited to start working on the second book. There’s a storm brewing in the human camp, Caly, in a downwards spiral, is far more reckless than usual, and Selene’s character will be a bit different going forward. I’ll also be introducing some new characters and I’m excited for readers to meet them.

T.L.: Who do you want your story to reach? What do you hope they’ll take away?

S.Y.: The only thing I’ve ever wanted is for people to read my books and know that they’re not alone; that it’s okay if you’re a lesbian, bisexual, gay, pan, poly, trans, non-binary, etc. LGBT representation in literature is something I wish I’d been exposed to as a teenager, and because I didn’t have it, I want to give it. Until I started seeing LGBT characters portrayed both in lit and in the media, I wasn’t comfortable coming out. If my writing can help just one person, in any way, I’ve personally succeed as an author.

T.L.: What lessons have your characters taught you?

S.Y.: My initial reaction to this question was, “Don’t take a sword into a gun fight.” But despite a few setbacks, Caly and Atreo are pretty lethal with their swords and so this might not be a good takeaway.

Every character has taught me something different. Caly taught me perseverance and unwavering loyalty. Atreo taught me to think and act rationally in tough situations. As she often leans on Eleon, Selene has taught me that it’s okay to lean on friends and family for support. On the flip side, Valor has helped teach me that family doesn’t always mean blood; it’s the family that you make for yourself that matters most. Andromeda taught me that I really wish I had a prehensile tail that I could use to knock sense into whoever annoys me.

‘Heart Berries’ describes the rough places

Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir Heart Berries (Counterpoint, 2018; available from BookPeople) gives an important perspective on interpreting one’s own emotions and place in the world.

Mailhot, who is from Seabird Island Band, transcribes her experience with a psychiatric hospitalization. She shares what mental illness means to her:

“I am sick or possessed. The spirits used to possess the people. We called it ‘Indian sick,’ and it was the first illness to be accounted for. It begins with want, with taking, and ends with a silence that hurts and makes us beg. There were stories about the cures and causes. Women tried to eat soapberries, or nothing, and talked about how we all had it coming. When the first children died it was too late to stop talking. … The only thing, the right thing — the thing that brought about our immunity — was the knowledge that something instinctual would carry us back. The awareness that our ancestors were watching was vital.” (p. 15)

So much happens in these few sentences. “I am sick” gives us the simplest possible assessment of the situation on the ground, the assessment likely to be understood by the greatest number of people. She immediately grounds it culturally: “the spirits used to possess the people” is a mythological narrative, followed by “we called it ‘Indian sick'” which is a lesson on language and history, then “it begins with want, with taking” which is about how those particular sufferers experienced this sickness. “When the first children died” is a memorial to those who were lost. Then, the faith in redemption: “something instinctual would carry us back.” What is happening now will become part of all of this history: “our ancestors were watching.”

This small book accomplishes a lot. This is a lesson in how to describe those patches that are very nearly unexplainable.

‘Freshwater’ gives fresh language for body and spirit

4-panel digital art by Tucker Lieberman

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (available from BookPeople) tells the story of someone whose identity has always been defined by multiple spirits, the ọgbanje.

“So we were still caged inside the Ada, with the grainy memory of charcoal coating the back of her throat. She was more isolated than ever and we were chafing at still being flesh, so the only thing left to do was hunt. If we were trapped in a body, then we would do bodily things. We painted the Ada’s mouth and lined her eyes with night, and we went out with Asụghara on a long and relaxed leash.”

The physical world, especially the human body in relation to it, and Ada’s body in particular within this novel, is called an “oath.” It serves as a reminder that spirits belong in the spirit world; hence, it is a promise made to those spirits who have stopped in and bound themselves to the physical world only for a time.

“With a force like ours, we dragged other things along — a pact, bits of bone, an igneous rock, worn-out velveteen, a strip of human hide tying it all together. This compound object is called the iyi-ụwa, the oath of the world. It is a promise we made when we were free and floating, before we entered the Ada. The oath says that we will come back, that we will not stay in this world, that we are loyal to the other side. When spirits like us are put inside flesh, this oath becomes a real object, one that functions as a bridge. It is usually buried or hidden because it is the way back, if you understand that the doorway is death.”

Emezi has achieved something special in their book. This is a powerful way of speaking about gender, personality, embodiment, culture, authenticity and fidelity to oneself, and the conflicting emotions and inner forces that pull us. Their website: akwaeke.com

Can the truth-tellers win?

Conspiracy theories lost their place in fiction as the 21st century approached, says Alan Glynn in his Vulture article last week. First, it no longer seemed “shocking that those in power might be bad actors.” Second, Internet-fueled “information overload led to a sort of heat death of what we know and understand, a point of entropy at which, if a conspiracy theorist believed one theory — chemtrails, say — they would most likely believe all of them: the moon landings, fluoridation, Waco, Lady Diana, the New World Order, WT7, take your pick.” This excess meant that “conspiracy theory itself had become a devalued currency.”

Conspiracy theories today, he says, are “customized to achieve desired political outcomes and then injected into the news stream via social media,” thus being “weaponized in the most cynical and partisan way.” So: “The new challenge is to catch them at it — to identify the truth of any given situation, to back it up with evidence, and to inoculate that evidence against the twin viruses of perception management and narrative bias.”

Powerful people always lie — there’s no problem with that premise for a novel. But, in such a fictional world, we should ask whether there’s any drama in watching ordinary people try to speak truth to power. Put another way: Does the novel hold out any hope that truth-tellers can win?