Saturday, 21 April 2007

The Pool, the Leash, and the Aesthetic Overseer

Milkyloop is a bad frog. He wears black glasses and a tie. He fires a gun at himself; he has a shield around him and the bullets shoot off in different directions.

I'm always fascinated by my son's ideas, and am especially interested in where they originate. Original combination of non-original elements. But what is controlling the combining? What forces are choosing A over B?

We created a monster generator a while back: nothing grander than a simple set of rules, influenced by dice rolls, indexed to lists of keywords. One list contained bodily appendages such as tentacles, single eye, brain on outside, horns, wings, tail and fangs; another list contained textural adjectives such as fiery, leathery, fragile, slimy, liquid, transparent and iron. Even with these two small lists, we could apply a 1:2 rule and come out with a monster that has fragile iron tentacles.

What this generator has in common with a child's mind is its disregard for logic. And logic often forms a barrier within adults that prevents them from entering the depth of their imagination.

(You can read about Jean Piaget's four development stages here. Note that, according to Piaget, the child enters logical thought between the ages of seven and eleven.)

In the example I open with, an adult would typically (or, more accurately, unconsciously) begin with the frog guy and his characteristics, tap into the lists of keywords in their head, and hop uncertainly around these ideas, as though tethered to them with a short leash. Hmmm ... Malfrog ... Gunhopper ... Croakkiller ...

Here, the amount of available resources (the lists of keywords) and the logical connections are combining to pull out a name. The final decision is made when the resulting name satisfies some aesthetic criteria, and here is where the author defines himself through style, wit and imagination.

So our pool of keywords is filled through our life - through experiences and, where we require more than experience, through research. My knowledge of frogs is slim, so I'm gonna surf for a few seconds to expand my pool. Already, though, I'm making connections: Frog - bad - poison darts - arrowhead frog - croak (pun ... yuk ... does not satisfy my aesthetic check, but certainly would satisfy many others').

Okay. As I surf, I make decisions. I am applying some sort of logic - a logic that looks for connections and especially one that looks for aesthetic value. In this way, I have my unique set of rules for satisfying my search.

First port of call:

Frogs are poikilothermic animals. This means that they are cold-blooded.

Now we can see how this leash begins to stretch. I'm dancing around a word that inspires me aesthetically, but has only a tenuous link with frogs. This is a part of my style; I am comfortable stretching this leash.

But I haven't enough material yet ...

'The study of reptiles and amphibians is called Herpetology. Herp comes from the Greek word herpeton, which basically means "creepy crawly things that move about on their bellies".'

My brain is thinking of herpes and of harpies. Diseases and mythological creatures.

I'm also drawn to the 'kilo' part of poikilothermic, but this my unconscious trying to pull the leash in. Begone!

'They are one of three types of Amphibians. Anura, also called Salientia, (frogs and toads), caudate (salamanders and newts) and caecilians (worm-like amphibians).'
The word Anura appeals on many levels! But it's not fitting the image: it seems (to me) too feminine for this smartly-dressed, cold-blooded killer.

Hey! Look at this!
'Oriental fire-bellied toads have heart-shaped pupils.'
How cool!

Anyhoo, here we stop the fun (because I have writing to do!).

I would usually tend to devote hours to a name, looking for the perfect fit. The point, I hope, is made.

*We draw from a pool.

*We make connections that help us to choose. The more logical the connection, the tighter the leash. The freer the logic, the greater the range.

*We judge with an aesthetic value. This aesthetic value plays an enormous role in defining and describing our style. (Just as an opinion, I tend to find that alliterate names and first-level puns in names are indicative of a weak aesthetic.)
In our monster generator, the pool was the lists of keywords, the leash was the set of rules, and the aesthetics were created with the randomizer - the dice rolls (N.B. Of course, the entire generator was moulded under the government of a similar set of rules!).
The only other observation that I'll make for now is that we must take care when stretching the leash. The N400 shows us how the reader is liable to feel disconnected from our story should we continually distend logical connections. Would this apply to a name? Well, given that the N400 deals with expectations, either preconceptual or artificially induced, what might be the effects, both short term and long term, of introducing a character called Love Peacekind who ultimately engages in extreme acts of cruelty? Or of introducing a character called Adolf who takes a job as a janitor in a primary school?
The reader comes to recognize patterns in a writer's style, and these patterns help to create expectations that might nullify otherwise negative effects of the N400. Whilst my son might create an apparently illogical, disparate name for a killer frog, it's worth noting that he also creates characters whose names are derived very much from the first-level consciousness. In this way, there is no tangible pattern that would give the reader that secure feeling of being controlled - of being guided masterfully through a tale.

Here's a picture of Dalek Sec from the cover of this week's Radio Times. Personally, I would've raised the tentacles on one side to break the symmetry, thereby deepening unsettlement. I think a heart-shaped pupil would jazz him up too :o)

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