The Language of Fans

Posted on 11 June 2010

I just finished reading the book A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham. It was actually a pretty good book once I got into it, although it took me two tries. First time, I got about halfway through the prologue and was somewhat distracted and not into it enough to pick it up for some time.  Anyway, it was proof that a good simple story of conspiracy to topple a government by means of destroying its unique advantage over others can come in odd ways. In this instance, the government’s advantage was it had a god that destroyed unborn things. Economically, it helped by making cotton processing easier. Warfare (not that it was really need), it could be used to destroy entire fields of crops or kill an entire generation before it is born. Of course, none of this is why I titled the post as I did. No, what I want to talk about is the concept of nonverbal languages in stories.

See, The Long Price Quartet (as the series this book starts is called) exists in a world where some people communicate using both words and accompanying poses. Alright, interesting concept, especially when dealing with such people and others who are not as adept at the poses so miss nuances, if not complete understanding. But, here is the hitch: presentation. I cannot think of any way to actually do these “languages of fans” to an excessive degree without making them trite and slightly annoying.

See, all the descriptive texts for the conversations—those little beats between the actual dialogue—were eaten by the poses. He says something, then takes a pose that is kind of “duh”, like he asks a question and takes a pose of query. There might be a little more detail than just “of query”, but like “a pose of query that implied a formal frankness”, but all of this was usually present in the dialogue. In the events where there was only a pose and no dialogue, it felt like poor attempt at making the characters more eloquent than the writer felt himself capable of.

Another instance of this in writing, one where I am actually pulling the title of the post from, and that is the Wheel of Time. One of the nations in that book series has an entire language of fans (which I want to think is drawn from a real nation somewhere that did the same thing), where you could non-verbally communicate. In The Wheel of Time, Faile, the character that uses the language, only does so on rare instance due to the fact that almost no one else in the series knows it, and the one person who does know some is her husband, who she has been teaching it to. There, it makes sense as a means of subterfuge. But if it was all over the place, well, I’d probably be annoyed by it too.

The related problem, of course, is how to relate massive use of such a thing, especially when it is required to understand the dialogue, on a movie screen. Yeah, baseball movies have the call-sign things between coaches and players, but all you need to know there is that communication happened, not what it was. Imagine, though, having to work in some explanation for poses or fan-motions so that the audience could have a chance at knowing what is being said, and then having to expect them to remember more than one or two meanings. Gah!

So yeah, Language of Fans is right there on my “cool yet bad idea” list. Can anyone think of a counter-example? I’m hard pressed.

3 comment to The Language of Fans

  • David says:

    Nice article Richard. I actually happen to be finishing up “Shadow” as we speak. I think you’re right on with the almost unavoidable awkwardness of non-verbal communication – especially when translating to a visual media.

    I think the only easy way to transition something like Faile’s non-verbal language would be to treat it as a foreign language and use sub-titles…though this technique would draw the eyes away from the motions themselves and down to the words on the screen. Guess you can’t win them all!

    My favorite example of non-verbal communication to date has to be the Drasnian Secret Language from David Edding’s Belgariad and Mallorean series. Characters say one thing with their words and another completely different thing with their hands.

  • Richard Fife says:

    David: YES! I had forgotten about that, but I did love it for the snide double-talk. That and I just love Edding’s writing style. Not many people can drive a plot off 90% snarky dialogue (that may be an exaggeration, but still)

    • David says:

      Richard: Couldn’t agree more! Plus, along with the requisite Tolkien, Eddings was my gateway to the realm of fantasy oh-so-many years ago, so I’ll always have a soft spot for his work.

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