Thursday, 22 September 2016

We're Not Using the Z Word - Vocabulary and Expectation

Image from Shaun of the Dead, (c) probably Universal Pictures 2004
You know what you're getting when someone says 'zombie', right? It's a word with years, decades even, of accumulated pop-cultural and literary antecedents to inform our expectations. The cultural front-loading of words like zombie, vampire, werewolf or witch are useful shorthand for the writer. 'Zombie' conveys a wealth of information in an incredibly succinct way because the word is laden with cultural coding. That same coding allows a clever writer to subvert expectations in an interesting way, but it has a downside. In fact, it has several.

Familiarity breeds contempt, it is said, and certainly one of the first things to be called at the screen during any zombie feature is usually 'aim for the head, numbnuts!' We the viewers are so steeped in this lore that genre blindness and obedience to years of best-practice training which teaches shooters to aim for centre of mass looks like sheer folly. They're zombies, right? They move slowly and eat brains. Shoot them in the head. Job done. Not only does this create animosity towards the characters in a work of fiction, it is also part and parcel of a process by which an antagonist loses their sense of threat.

This was the oft-maligned genius of 28 Days Later. Say what you like about the rage monkeys and all, the film's trump card was the fast zombie. We were keyed up to expect zombies and when they came barreling along at a rate of knots, we were totally unprepared. Since then, the fast zombie has lost that shock power and it occupies a similar place to the slow zombie. By the same token, I guess Stephanie Meyer deserves some credit for bucking expectations of the term 'vampire', but I really struggle to give it, and I know exactly why. 28 Days Later gave us fast moving monsters that nonetheless filled the same horror role as slow zombies, of being mindless, hunger-driven beasts that look like us, but aren't. Meyer's vampires have next to nothing of horror left in them, just melancholy and glitter.

But I digress.

It is desperately important to some people that Stormfly is not a dragon.
Astrid doesn't seem bothered. Image (c) Dreamworks, 2014
The problem with a jack move like the fast zombie is that some people will always consider it to be 'cheating', or that the film is getting it wrong. 28 Days Later was assailed by cries of zombie fail (although fast zombies have since come to be considered an acceptable, if slightly weaksauce alternative.) Internet commenters rail against dragons that are actually wyverns, the tetrapodal losers. That same cultural coding that creates the sense of expectation creates a sort of entitlement. We have a right to expect dragons to love gold, vampires to fear the sun and zombies to moan 'brains', and if a story throws us by having them do something different, we can end up feeling aggrieved that they got it wrong, or worse, used fake zombies to get a cheap scare. It's like the rage felt over cultural appropriation, only the culture involved is that of the populist, mass-media majority(1).

But this isn't my media blog, it's my writing blog, so what does this mean for writers? Well, basically it means that what you choose to call something is a major decision, especially if you're leaning towards one of the popular terms. If you call something a zombie, you're loading it with expectations. If you call something a dragon you'd better be prepared for people to count the feet and sniff disdainfully (although this one is less of a big deal.) If you call something a witch, be ready for potential Wiccan backlash(2), and if you call a race of travelers you-know-what... Well, you deserve whatever's coming to you, really. So, before you decide on a name you should:

a) Make sure it's not a racial, ethnic or cultural slur, especially if you're white(3).

b) Be aware of the intrinsic cultural coding and whether it fits with what you're writing.

c) Decide if you're happy to follow expectations, or if you want to subvert them.

Point c is important. There's nothing wrong with breaking expectations if you're doing it as a subversion (as with the original fast zombies or the vampires of the Dresden Files, none of which exactly work like trad vamps and that's the point,) but if you're trying to shoehorn something else into a conventional term, you're making a rod for your own back.

From the other side, if you are going with that conventional term, be sure that if you have changes, there are reasons for them, either relating to the narrative or 'in-universe.'  Fast zombies result less from mutation of the zombie virus than from a desire to shake up the genre, but faeries who are vulnerable to silver and not iron or vampires who aren't burned in the sun should probably have a reason for that and the question ought to be addressed.

Aurochs? Load of bull if you ask me. Image by Heinrich Harder.
Now, mostly I'm writing this as a reminder for myself rather than a guide for anyone else. I'm writing an epic fantasy novel and I'm getting to a point where I really need to start constructing some language and making sure my terminology is sound. Part of that is avoiding words that have encoded meanings; not just things like 'zombie' or 'dragon', but anthropological terms like clan, tribe or state. Is it apt to call any religious leader a priest? And for every time I've thought about this in advance I catch myself using another phrase that I just haven't thought about at all. New words are safer, but then you have to a) construct that language, so you don't just have words in isolation, and b) make sure that they are clear and memorable. Even if you have a glossary you don't want the reader flipping back and forth every couple of pages to remember whether a tsepec'manai is the leader of a village or the senior herder of aurochs.

(1) Not that there isn't an element of appropriation in zombies, but that ship sailed a long time ago and is, if anything, a lost irony to those who argue the toss on zombie speed.
(2) Dating a Wiccan has seriously sensitised me to this; it's easy to be a jerk just by not thinking.
(3) See (2) above.