Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Consequence of Seeing Red

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The social narrative for redheads is a double-edged sword, with the lovable, quirky, positive image juxtaposed against a much darker perception.

In ages past, red hair had a direct association with witchcraft and the occult. It served as evidence of Satanic ties, rumored to be favored by the devil himself. Witch hunters kept watch for fiery locks, and were advised to consider them an outward sign of evil hearts.

I heard, once upon a time, that for England at least, this came because redheads were prevalent among the Celtic tribes: the Irish, Scottish, Cornish, and Welsh. The Irish in particular, removed on their island and resistant to British rule, maintained close ties with their pagan folklore and roots, with the “other-izing” effect that they were perceived as more attuned to supernatural elements.

This belief that red hair marked a witch or other supernatural being was not restricted only to the British Isles, however, but cropped up across Northern Europe. This negative narrative echoes into present day, where red hair can yet signal a social outlier.

The “redheaded stepchild” motif plays into this narrative, as does the bullying that some redheads suffer as a result of their hair color. “Better dead than red,” the saying goes, and many a redhead has sloughed it off as best they could.

Infamously, South Park dedicated an episode to “gingers,” which spawned the ongoing meme that redheads are soulless, as well as inspiring a “Kick-a-Ginger Day” observance among some over-zealous middle-schoolers. And, of course, the Internet is rife with such negative stereotypes.

Redheads are the perpetual outcast, the default whipping boy for the rest of society—or society of European descent, at least. I would say it’s astonishing that a simple physical characteristic could spawn such irrational patterns of thought and behavior, but this seems to be the general modus operandi for much of the human race. Redheads are not the first, nor are they the most abused on the spectrum of victims.

Ginger Pride, too, is alive and well. (As it should be, because we’re awesome.)

For authors who create redheaded characters, whether to fill the role of protagonist or antagonist, the many social concerns of redheads must come into play, at least in the character development stage. Does the society of your story view red hair as a positive feature? A negative one? Is it noted at all? How will that perception shape your character’s worldview? (And believe me, it will.)

Most importantly, is the red hair simply one of your character’s features or is it a full-blown personality trait?

If it’s the latter, you’re playing into a stereotype. Proceed with caution.

Secrets of a Rare Breed

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Blog articles abound on redhead statistics: anywhere from 1-4% of the world’s population has this coloration, it’s more prevalent in Northern European countries (from the British Isles over to Russia), and it’s a recessive trait caused by a mutation of the MC1R gene, so it can skip generations.

A few years back, a piece even circulated about how redheads are going extinct. (That was false, by the way.)

I could parrot these articles and give you lots of readily accessible redhead facts. Instead, I’m going to discuss a less-acknowledged coppertop attribute.

To start: natural redheads can usually spot a dye job a mile away. We’re conditioned to see our hair as part of our identity, and we know when someone’s trying to break into the club.

A common phrase among redheads: “This color doesn’t come from a bottle.” For clarification on why this statement is so true, I spoke with Rashelle du Pont, hair stylist extraordinaire. Rashelle, a fellow redhead, is an artist when it comes to hair color. She gets to work with a lot of redheads from young to old, with every tone from strawberry-blond to dark auburn, and she’s an expert at matching the natural color to a shade.

(She’s also my cousin. Have I mentioned that my maternal relatives consider red hair to be a badge of honor and evidence of divine favor? They do, and of course it is.)

According to Rashelle, the spectrum of red hair covers more than just the light-to-dark continuum. Most people think of the fiery red tones when they hear the word “redhead,” but copper, auburn, and ginger all have their place in this color family. What’s more, red hair also incorporates both a warm and a cool spectrum of color.

And most bottle-jobs skew too far to the warm side. When your Lucille Balls and Emma Stones of the world sport that vibrant shade of red that leaps off the screen and looks too good to be true, it is too good to be true. (Both Lucille and Emma were/are natural blondes.)

The cool-toned reds get easily overlooked, but this is the link that your bottle-reds are missing. Rashelle’s custom formula for “the perfect auburn” involves a 50/50 mixture of copper (warm) and what she terms an “ashy bluish-green” (cool). And, from the sounds of it, that’s an easy combo. She mixes 4-5 colors to match some shades of red.

What can I say? Redheads are naturally complex.

As you can probably imagine, this warm/cool combo throws all the fashion color theories out the window, but those theories were created for blondes and brunettes anyway. Redheads almost need their own line of makeup and their own color palette for clothes. However, as only ~2% of the population suffers from this lack, we make do with what we have.

I will admit, though, that my world opened up the day my Great-Aunt Elise (also a hair stylist) disclosed, “Honey, you’re a blue-red, not an orange-red.” All my life up until then, I’d been told that my hair color was warm, which left me to wonder why I looked so horrible in warm-colored clothes.

These days I like to toy with the cool/warm ambiguity. I can tip my green eyes over to blue with the right makeup. I’ve found the perfect shade of orange I can wear (more in the copper spectrum, naturally). I know which colors will wash me out and which ones will turn me pink.

And the cardinal rule? When in doubt, wear black.

(Red hair really should come with an owner’s manual.)

Now, you may be thinking, “But Kate, blondes and brunettes have this warm/cool spectrum as well.” And of course they do. But what does someone say when they’re a warm blonde or a warm brunette?

“Hey, I have some red in my hair.”

Yeah. Sure you do. Welcome to the club.

Cue the Lovable, Quirky Hijinks

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I was nine years old when Disney first released The Little Mermaid. It had a tremendous impact on me.

Strawberry Shortcake, Little Orphan Annie, Raggedy Ann: these were my people. But they were all children, so they were for babies. Insofar as “adults” were concerned, Barbie  and Aurora were blondes, Snow White had black hair, and Cinderella, a strawberry blonde in the movie, was rendered blonde everywhere else, as though her red hair was a shameful secret to sweep under the rug.

(“Shh! Don’t mention the red hair!”)

Prior to The Little Mermaid, the only significant openly redheaded adult character I had encountered was Jessica Rabbit, from Who Framed Roger Rabbit the previous year. And, as I’ve previously discussed, my parents were less than enthused when I latched onto her as a role model.

So along came Ariel (who was hardly an adult, but to a nine-year-old, sixteen is ancient). She was redheaded, she was grown up, and she was “mine.” All redheaded characters were “mine,” up until I started noticing a pattern in the set.

Spunky Ariel challenged her father’s rule and struck her own path. Sultry Jessica Rabbit sashayed her way to whatever she wanted. Quirky Strawberry, Annie, and Ann used their winsome smiles to endear themselves to everyone. But it wasn’t simply their character. The charm was in the hair.

Red hair is a literary hallmark. Like a beacon on a hill, it instantly alerts the audience, “Hey! This character is different and unique and living outside the box!”

Some literary encounters:

  • Pippi Longstocking, Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren: Pippi belongs in the same category as Strawberry, Annie, and Ann, except that she’s “quirky” on steroids. Those braids! Those freckles! That name! What’s Pippi up to now? D’aww, there are sure to be some hilarious hijinks from the lovable, quirky redhead.
  • Caddie Woodlawn, Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink: It’s another lovable, quirky redhead! And she’s a tomboy, too! What’s that quirky Caddie up to today? Off riding horses or playing with Indians? D’aww, there are sure to be some hilarious hij—hang on. Didn’t I already do this bit?
  • Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery: Look! It’s another precocious, fanciful, lovable redhead! And the hijinks! Of course! Anne wouldn’t have been nearly as precocious or fanciful or lovable as a dirty-blonde or a brunette, amirite? Half of her character is built from her hair color. And she hates it. Like, she constantly laments having red hair, to the extent that I started to question my worldview. Was I supposed to hate my hair too?
  • Aerin, The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley: Say goodbye to quirks and hijinks. This novel broadened my understanding of the negative side of red hair. Aerin, the witchwoman’s daughter, an outcast from her dark-haired countrymen, faces isolation from her own family because of her fiery locks. She’s actually not quirky. She’s also not out-of-the-box by choice. She’s been shoved out because she doesn’t belong. So, breath of fresh air and depressing all at the same time. Hooray…?
  • The Weasley Family, the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling: Oh, look! We’re magic and could probably build ourselves a castle with magic, but we’re a whole lovable family of super-quirky redheads, so we’re going to live in a super-quirky shambles of a shack that we’ll call The Burrow. It’s so quirky! Did we mention that we all have red hair? And that we’re quirky?

Okay, so I might have already reached my disillusionment stage by the time I encountered Harry Potter. I know that people absolutely love the Weasleys, and I probably would have loved them too if they were a family of blonds or brunets, or a mixture of hair colors. But the whole “quirky gingers” vibe put me off because it’s already flippin’ everywhere. And since the only other redhead in the series (if I recall correctly) was Lily Potter—who is dead on Page 1—as a redhead, I found the “lovable, quirky outcasts” just a bit too stereotypical.

Oh, but that’s just one of my quirks, I suppose. It came with the hair color.

(I guess the “lovable” trait takes some actual work, haha.)

Drifting Towards the Worst Possible Outcomes

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What is it with time travel and Nazis, anyway? It’s generally accepted that anyone who develops a time machine has a moral obligation to use it to stop Hitler. It’s also generally accepted that, for our closed-loop timeline at least, all such endeavors failed.

(But seriously, Hitler survived how many assassination attempts? Wikipedia has an “incomplete” list of 25, so there totally could have been time travelers in that mix.)

More nerve-wracking than the time-traveler’s requirement to take out Hitler, though, is the understood condition that any changes made to the past will likely result in an Axis victory and a world-wide totalitarian state.

TVtropes.org calls it Godwin’s Law of Time Travel:

As the amount of time-traveling you do increases, the probability of Hitler winning World War II approaches one.”

This trope fits right into the open-loop mantra, “Don’t meddle.” Time, that delicate mechanism, turns its course upon the slightest variations, and all alternate roads apparently lead to a worldwide socialist regime and swastikas on the White House. (Which is one reason I prefer the closed-loop model, truth be told.)

Why can’t it lead to a libertarian paradise for once, hmm? Probably because, in our heart of hearts, we’re all cynics. It’s human nature to lean towards the Worst Possible Outcome, and for Western society, that is Hitler’s Holocaust.

I’ve taken it for granted most of my life that there is nothing worse than Hitler, but in recent years I’ve come to realize that I was wrong. For all the atrocities of WWII, the millions of people who died and the millions more who suffered, there is something worse.

It’s worse than Stalin’s Holodomor, worse than Mao’s “Three Bitter Years,” worse than Pol Pot’s Killing Fields, and all the numberless atrocities that have occurred in the history of humankind upon this earth.

It is, simply, that despite the very clear-cut lessons history teaches us through these awful events, there are still people who cling to the power-hungry ideologies that caused them.

How is this even possible? Naive as it may seem, I always assumed that Nazism died in a German bunker in 1945. It should have died there or else shortly thereafter, when images from concentration camps circulated the globe.

“This is the consequence of this system of beliefs,” those images whisper. “Do not tread this path again.”

And yet, this -ism, alongside many others with similar outcomes, rears its head in pockets around the world, as though the consequences were trivial, non-existent, or—worst of all—a necessary means to an end. It’s mind-boggling to me.

The philosopher George Santayana warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Humans may not have the power to go back in time, to fix things so that we can say, “Never at all,” but we should at least hold our ground and say, “Never again.”

Of Time Loops and Paradoxes

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Time travel comes in two distinct flavors: the linear closed-loop variety and the branching open-loop variety. The first is stable and reliable, while the second is volatile and chaotic. In many time-travel stories, the reader doesn’t know for certain which variety is in effect until the end.

The Closed Loop

The closed loop treats time as an unchangeable dimension. Events from the beginning of creation to its end are set in stone, and the time traveler’s experiences are already worked into the equation. Essentially, time occurs on a straight line. The traveler loops back to the past, but nothing in the intervening time line changes because they always existed in that past before they actually went there.

Example: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling

The third book in Rowling’s iconic series, Prisoner of Azkaban introduces the time-turner, a device that Hermione uses to attend multiple classes at once. The closed-loop nature of time becomes apparent at the end of the book, when Harry and Hermione go back in time to change events, not realizing until afterwards that their future selves were already at play in the earlier disasters. There’s no alternate timeline, in other words. The reader gets to experience the same events twice alongside Harry and Hermione, but the events themselves are identical.

The unchangeable nature of a closed loop does create limitations. To the question, “Why didn’t someone use a time-turner to take out Voldemort before he got too powerful?” comes the dissatisfying answer, “Because no one did.” Everyone knows that Voldemort did rise to power, so obviously no one ever succeeded in assassinating him beforehand. To do so would create an open-loop scenario, which would destroy Rowling’s meticulously planned closed loop.

It would also negate the series as a whole, since Voldemort is the one to get the plot rolling in the first place.

The Open Loop

The open loop treats time as an ever-branching dimension, malleable and unpredictable. A change in events will cause the timeline to diverge from that point forward. This scenario requires an infinite number of universes, with the time-traveler moving from one to the next as the timeline recalibrates.

Consequently, the traveler retains memories of the events they destroy, of the alternate branches from whence they came.

Example: “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury

This short story, to which I owe my comic’s punchline, tells of a man who accidentally kills a butterfly in the prehistoric era, only to return to an alternate reality of his own time. What seems like an insignificant action causes dire consequences, for him and society both.

The open loop technically has all possible outcomes at its disposal, but let’s be honest. It’s usually the worst scenario that occurs, at least on the time traveler’s first return. If the traveler gets a chance to correct their error, things will still never be exactly what they were beforehand. “Don’t meddle” seems to be the moral of the story.

The Open-Closed Hybrid Loop

An innovative variation in time-travel stories combines open and closed loops. The broader timeline is closed, but the time traveler gets stuck in an alternating, repeating loop until they can arrive at that closed-loop outcome.

Example #1: Groundhog Day (1993)

Bill Murray stars as Phil Conners, a weatherman who gets stuck living the same day over and over and over again. He remembers each incarnation. He tries to break the loop, to no avail. He doesn’t age, but he does retain any skills he acquires over the course of his relived episodes.

Example #2: “Endless Eight” by Nagaru Tanigawa

In this installment of the Haruhi Suzumiya series, sarcastic high-schooler Kyon relives the eight weeks of summer 15,000+ times because unwitting-master-of-the-universe Haruhi is secretly dissatisfied as the holiday comes to a close. Unlike Phil Conners, Kyon retains only a sense of déjà vu from one incarnation to the next, though it does become stronger over time.

The short story is brilliant, but the anime version created a ragestorm among fans when the same episode aired 8 weeks in a row, reanimated each time with different visual details, but with the same sequence of events. It gave viewers a taste of the time loop from Yuki Nagato’s perspective, though, as she remains fully aware for each of the 15,000+ repetitions.

The open-closed hybrid allows for the exploration of multiple possibilities with the assurance of one designated outcome. It can, however, become tedious if overdone.

Beware the Paradoxes

Please note: time travel in fiction introduces the potential for massive plot holes. Attention to detail is key when incorporating this plot element into any story, written or visual, because the audience expects the end result to make sense. As with all fantasy, time travel must adhere to rules of logic.

Shoddy time travel is the reason I despise movies like The Lake House (2006) and Kate & Leopold (2001). You can’t save the guy whose death sent you to the place where you encounter the magic mailbox that allows you to meet him two years in the past (because if you save him, you wouldn’t have gone, and then you never saved him, so you did go, but then you did save him, so you wouldn’t have gone, and then…). Similarly, if a photographer from the future flees a scene before the love interest from the future appears, said photographer can’t use a photograph of the love interest at the scene to convince her to go back in time to appear on scene.

Seriously. Get your crap together, people.

(I have been banned from watching time-travel-themed chick flicks, by the way. I’ve been banned from watching chick flicks in general, but the time-travel ones are especially verboten. Apparently I’m a killjoy.)

In the Silence of the Darkest Hour

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12th century England marks the transition period between Old and Middle English. William the Conqueror’s victory in 1066 ushered in a slew of French nobility and clergymen. The ruling class, though a distinct minority, spoke a different language than the peasantry, and in the subsequent decades, this factor led to a very quickly evolving native tongue.

Old English—or Anglo-Saxon, or simply Saxon, as it was called in this period—fell out of favor. It branded its speaker as a member of a lesser social class, while French indicated a more elite status. (English would remain “vulgar” up until about a hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, by the way, and the narrative of its inherent inferiority persists even today.)

This difference in language statuses resulted in a lovely phenomenon, however: many of those on the lower end of the social spectrum sought to elevate their standing through language acquisition, so that French and Saxon co-mingled to produce a new hybrid English.

That’s right. It’s extremely likely that our beloved language is, at its roots, a creole.

Evidence lies in the shift from the Old English structure of Subject-Object-Verb (SOV, very Germanic) to the Middle English structure of Subject-Verb-Object (SVO, a common creole structure). French vocabulary piled into the language with class distinctions firmly attached. This is the period that gave us the Saxon terms for animals in the field—cow, pig, and chicken—but French terms at the dinner table—beef, pork, and poultry. The peasants in the field spoke Saxon, but their feudal, meat-eating masters spoke French, and the surviving terms reflect as much.

French and Latin dominated the written word. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ended its approximately 300-year run in A.D. 1154, but it was a singular relic by then. The Insular Script, developed in Ireland and popular in the Old English period, would give way to Carolingian cursive and a more gothic style (both of which are super difficult to read, haha), so that not even the alphabet looked the same.

Not that it mattered: for the duration of the 12th century, only peasants spoke English, and they were more than likely illiterate.

This illiteracy added to the rapid linguistic change. The written word provides an anchor; from A.D. 1100-1200, the English language was a ship adrift. Accents shifted and dialects mushroomed. The feudal system chained English speakers to their French masters’ lands, isolating communities from one another. The language of London arose as the standard-bearer while the western and northern dialects became marked and increasingly distinct.

King John I’s loss of Normandy in 1204 heralded the slackening of French influence upon the island nation. From that point onward, English would gradually reclaim its rightful place once more. But in the midst of the 12th century, native speakers could harbor little hope for their spoken word.

Truly this is the Dark Age of the English language, out of which a brilliant future emerged.

 

Out of Place in Time and Space

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Anachronism, that bane of all historical fiction writers, can crop up when you least expect it. Obvious New World acquisitions—coffee, cocoa, and tobacco—perhaps are easy enough to weed out. They are luxury items, associated with a certain lifestyle.

New World produce of a humbler nature might sneak into the narrative undetected. Basic as it may seem, those medieval peasants aren’t eating potatoes in their stew, and they can’t throw tomatoes at the prisoners in the stocks. Sorry.

Corn provides a particularly interesting case, because the word existed in English prior to New World exploration. It referred generally to all grain rather than one specific type. Thus, in the KJV Bible, when Pharaoh dreams of seven ears of “corn,” it’s not the on-the-cob variety; and when Christ’s disciples pluck the corn from the corn fields, they naturally rub its chaff off between their hands before they eat it.

It’s easy enough, from a modern perspective, to substitute the narrowed definition of corn into either of these instances. For Americans at least, corn is almost everywhere we look, from our soft drinks to our gasoline. And because it’s so pervasive in our culture, it’s an effortless hop-skip-and-jump to assume that it’s always been there.

Alas, not so.

Technology provides another source for potential anachronism. The introduction of gunpowder was a game-changer for any civilization. The development of cannons and guns rendered such protections as castle walls and plate armor ineffective where they had previously guarded against blades and battering rams. As guns increased in power, armor became a hindrance rather than a help.

The cycle of armor, too, has a logical progression to it. A prominent anachronism occurs in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: protagonist Hank Morgan encounters plate armor in 6th century England, roughly 700 years before it came into use. Mail—or maille, or mayle—preceded this more recognized type of armor. Oddly enough, the term “chain mail” is a later descriptor: Dictionary.com lists its entrance into the language as occurring between 1815-1825 (which exactly corresponds to when Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe artfully romanticized the Medieval period).

Which brings us to, perhaps, the most glaring anachronism of them all: the language itself.

Language change can be at once both rapid and slow, obvious and subtle. Slang comes and goes like a flash in the pan, while a subject-agreement cycle might require centuries to manifest. Literacy plays a huge role in slowing change, but any encounter with foreign cultures will speed it up. All of these elements and more combine to make an ever-shifting linguistic field. Anachronism of terms, then, is basically impossible to avoid.

Much has been written about the dysfunction of the English writing system. People lament that words like break and beak don’t rhyme, or that though, through, rough, trough, bought, and bough display six different pronunciations for the same cluster of four letters. Welcome to the Great Vowel Shift. In the 1300-1600s, English vowels migrated in their pronunciation.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, for people like me who love this sort of thing), this is the same time period in which Caxton brought the printing press across the Channel and standardized spelling became a thing. Mid-shift. Meaning half these vowels shifted their pronunciation after printers decided, “Hey, this is how that word is spelled.”

Haha. Oh well.

Personally, I adore the English spelling system. It’s quirky, yes, but all restricted codes are. Those who call for spelling reforms dismiss the history inherently tied to our lexicon. They also fail to acknowledge that funetik speling looks iliterit. English has 13 vowels and only 6 letters with which to represent them. A true spelling reform would require a revised alphabet.

Too much effort.

And of course, for any type of historical fiction, modern spelling applies. But if you’re headed back to the Middle Ages, be aware that any modern words dating from that period had a markedly different pronunciation back then. Chances are, your time-traveling hero won’t recognize them right off the bat, especially when they’re ensconced amid the jargon of their day.

Gilding the Tarnished Ages Past

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Time travel stories make a lot more sense to me when authors branch out beyond Middle-Ages Europe. Of all the civilizations in the history of the world, Europe of the Dark Ages is probably on the lower end of the Desirable Destinations scale.

And yet, we romanticize it. It’s pastoral! It’s idyllic! Clean air! Fresh, unsullied landscapes and wildernesses yet to be tamed!

Realistically? It’s filthy and germ-ridden and completely devoid of our modern comforts. Sure, there are vast swaths of pristine land, but good luck living out there. A modern soul foraging in the wilds of five hundred years ago would probably die of starvation within a week or two, if the elements didn’t get them first. The cities are even worse: raw sewage runs in the streets and taints the rivers. The water is undrinkable, unless you’d like a side of cholera with it.

And in the royal courts? Heady perfumes cover the reek of body odor because no one ever bathes.

History is gross. The people who lived through it, bless their souls, had no other choice.

Some time-travel stories responsibly take this into account. Others plop their characters in the midst of a bygone Europe and—pardon the topical idiom—polish the turd right shiny. But life in ages past was difficult, and a time traveler would feel that difficulty most keenly.

Sure, acknowledging the negative side of past eras will usher in a plethora of extra variables, but that’s half the fun.

The time-travel plot line works particularly well when the character tumbles back through the centuries by accident or happenstance and has to adjust to this different rhythm of life. When they’re choosing where to go, however, my internal voice pipes up with, “Ooh! Ooh! Pick the Ming Dynasty! The Mayan Empire! Go find out what the Indus script sounds like!!!

Yes, if I had a time machine, I’d probably use it for recording ancient languages. Don’t judge.

My point is that the world is vast and lovely and richly historied, and if you’re going to go rustic, you can do a whole lot better than Medieval France.

More importantly, you can do a whole lot better than plopping down into one time and camping there. This is a vacation cottage industry prime for the picking: can you imagine the going rate for a three-hour tour of historical events?

(Cue the Gilligan’s Island theme song, haha. I smell a plot in the making.)

Time to Trust Technology

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It takes a special kind of character to self-experiment with new technology. On one end of the spectrum, you have the Tesla-smart guy, who’s done the math backwards and forwards and knows that everything will work as expected. On the other, you have the delusionally stupid guy who just assumes that everything will work out.

And then, in the middle, there’s the desperate, fearful, hopeful one who needs it to work.

Luckily, in time-travel fiction, the time-travel mechanism pretty much always does its job. Sometimes it’s accidental. Sometimes it’s supernatural. Sometimes it’s a lab experiment with a convoluted machine that harbors suspiciously jargon-esque parts, like “flux capacitors” and such.

*coughBackToTheFuturecough*

Reason would dictate that for every successful bout of fictional time travel, there were probably half a million other scientists that ended their quest as rust-colored smears on their garage walls. But of course those stories never get written.

(Because they would be short and gruesome. But I digress.)

I’ll admit it. There’s part of me, upon encountering a trope like time travel, that wonders, “No, really, how many people failed at this before your character succeeded?” Part of the allure of time travel is that *this* character succeeds where so many have failed. *This* character breaks through that seemingly impenetrable barrier that so many others slammed their shoulders against. *This* character is wise, special, well-favored of the fiction gods.

That’s hardly unique to time-travel stories, though. Most genres want a special protagonist. Pay no attention to the scores of failures that exist to counter-balance such success.

The term “time machine” comes courtesy of H. G. Wells, author of—you guessed it—The Time Machine. In this classic tale, a time traveller creates a vehicle that carries him hundreds of thousands of years into the future, where he discovers that the human race has devolved into two factions: the Morlocks and the Eloi. The Morlocks are skulking and brutish—because anything called a “Morlock” is going to be antagonistic, of course—and the Eloi, true to their lyrical name, are innocent and harmless.

And there’s a girl called “Weena.” Yeah, Wells isn’t winning any awards for his names from this corner of the Internet. (But I will give him credit for recognizing his weakness and leaving his time traveller nameless, hahaha.)

The novel, published in 1895, in addition to sparking hundreds of time-machine tales in its wake, has received multiple adaptations for radio, film, and comic books. It is, in short, a literary icon.

And its protagonist, of the Tesla-smart camp, set the benchmark for time-traveling protagonists everywhere. But he also disappeared at the end of the book. So maybe—just maybe—somewhere in time, there’s a rust-colored smear with his genetic signature on it.

You don’t know. No one does.

The Case of the Autonomous Body Parts

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Prescriptive Rule: “Never use a body part as the subject of your sentence.”

E.g., “Her shoulders rose in a hapless shrug.” (This structure is deemed bad, according to this rule.)

I randomly encountered this piece of advice a few months ago and was baffled because—confession—I break this “rule” all the time. When the adviser could yield no information as to why this would even be a thing, I went ahead and dug around the Internets a bit to find some reasoning. (You’re welcome.)

And I found three main points:

  1. It leads to dangling participles.
  2. It detracts from the character (agent) who is actually performing the action.
  3. It creates a sense of “autonomous” or “disembodied” body parts.

#1: It leads to dangling participles.

“While talking, her fingers curled around the warm, comforting coffee mug.” (Amazing, these talking fingers.)

Initial Assessment: I’ll give #1 a halfhearted nod for effort. Dangling participles are a legitimate structural issue, and for writers who view a featured body part as representative of the character, this trap might be too easy to spring. However, it’s not the body-part-as-subject’s fault. Dangling participles are sloppy writing and easily corrected:

  • “While she was talking, her fingers curled around the warm coffee cup.”

In this example, the true subject reunites with its participle, and the fingers still get to curl. A prescriptivist might contend that a better fix would be,

  • “While talking, she curled her fingers around the warm coffee cup.”

That, however, is a matter of debate. “She curled her fingers” is redundant, unless you want to argue that she could as easily be curling someone else’s fingers around the cup (which is 90% nonsense, 10% possible if this is a murder scene, the other person is unconscious, the coffee cup is the murder weapon, and “she” is framing “her”). The redundancy also makes it less efficient, especially since the writer can easily emphasize this character with the proper subject in the participial phrase.

Personally, I’d go with, “Her fingers curled around the warm coffee cup as she talked,” and skip the participle altogether.

Point #1 Diagnosis: The possibility of dangling participles doesn’t give license to forbid an entire class of subjects from someone’s writing. Rather than saying, “Never use body parts as subjects, because they can lead to dangling participles,” a better rule would be, “When using a body part as a subject, beware of possible dangling participles.” Or, more tongue-in-cheek, “When using a body part as a subject, your writing should have no dangling participles.”

(You see what I did there? Participles can dangle without body-part subjects, too. So let’s stop talking about dangling and body parts, shall we?)

#2: It detracts from the character (agent) who is actually performing the action.

“Roger’s elbow jammed into Sheryl’s ribcage.” vs. “Roger jammed his elbow into Sheryl’s ribcage.”

Initial Assessment: This point looks to sentence structure as well. In English, the beginning of any sentence carries a focus feature that inherently directs the reader or listener to where they should train their attention. If the subject is the first element we encounter, it draws that focus.

Theta-Roles

Syntax and semantics teach about theta-roles, particularly the Agent, Experiencer, and Theme. Because Point #2 is so concerned about the character getting displaced as an agent, this bears looking into.

  1. Roger’s elbow jammed into Sheryl’s ribcage.
  2. Roger jammed his elbow into Sheryl’s ribcage.

These two sentences have a distinct rhetorical difference. In the second, Roger intentionally jams his elbow. In the first, the elbow is jammed, but whether Roger did it intentionally depends on context. If, for example, Roger and Sheryl are tumbling down a staircase together, Roger probably doesn’t intend to jam his elbow into Sheryl’s ribcage. It happens due to gravity and physics and the chaos that results from two people colliding under those circumstances. Sentence #1 is, therefore, the correct description.

Even in the case where the elbow-jamming is intentional, however, sentence #1 has a good argument for use.

Say, for example, that Roger and Sheryl are listening to Peter rant about how someone spilled a can of paint all over his car. Roger knows that Sheryl did it. He jams his elbow into her ribcage to drive home the point. However, he does it surreptitiously, so that Peter won’t notice.

“Roger’s elbow jammed into Sheryl’s ribcage” carries both a narrower and a more removed sense to it. From Sheryl’s perspective, Roger is prodding her to speak, but he’s doing so in a secretive manner. Only the elbow moves. The narrowing of the agent from “Roger” to “Roger’s elbow” gives a minute rhetorical cue of this controlled gesture. Roger can still be fixed on Peter and his ranting while ribbing Sheryl.

Point #2 Diagnosis: Yes, using the body part instead of the person shifts the agent of the sentence. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Banning the structure all together is like telling all artists to get rid of their fan brush because some of their peers use it too much or improperly. It makes no sense, and it robs creators of a tool that could otherwise be used to good effect.

Better instruction would involve training in syntax and semantics, so that the author who starts a sentence with a body part does so wittingly, aware of its narrative effect.

(Education, what? Shock! Chagrin! /sarcasm)

#3: It creates a sense of “autonomous” or “disembodied” body parts.

“Her shoulders rose in a hapless shrug.” (All by themselves, halfway across the room from where she stood. It was bizarre.)

Initial Assessment: “Ohmigosh! A disembodied hand just jumped into the narrative!” ~No reader, ever.

Pardon me for going off the rails here, but this excuse of “autonomous” or “disembodied” body parts is the MOST RIDICULOUS PIECE OF FREAKING GRAMMAR-NAZI DRIVEL THAT I HAVE EVER COME ACROSS IN THE WHOLE OF MY EXISTENCE. ARE YOU KIDDING ME??

  • “Her shoulders rose in a hapless shrug.”

No reader in their right mind is going to take that sentence as indicating that a pair of shoulders unattached to a body somehow magically appeared on scene and are moving of their own accord. The same goes for the following:

  • “His foot tapped a staccato rhythm against the floor.”
  • “Her fingers danced across the piano keys.”
  • “His eyes darted around the room.”

Body parts! Body parts everywhere!

EXCEPT NO.

See, there’s this thing about words. They have several layers of meaning built into them, layers beyond a simple dictionary definition. And when it comes to body parts, one of those layers dictates that the default condition for a body part is that it’s ATTACHED TO A BODY. That default remains in place unless specified otherwise.

So yeah, if you’re writing a zombie horror novel or graphic crime-scene thriller where disembodied parts are common and described in depth as being severed from their origin point, your reader might misunderstand a sentence that starts with a body part.

Might.

But probably not. Because readers aren’t stupid. (Or, at least, mine aren’t. *wink*)

Semantics—the layers of meaning that take in denotation, connotation, and sense for any given word and for the language as a whole—governs our understanding of language use. 99.9% of readers will never have that disembodied image enter their mind; the other 0.1% have heard this rule and had their mental process hijacked. (Thanks, prescriptivists!)

Or, worse, they’re being intentionally obtuse. “Look at this arm lurching across the page by itself, hur-de-hur-hurr!”

Point #3 Diagnosis: This is stupid. Quit using it as an excuse for telling people how to write.

The Eyes Have It

“Oh, but you should never have eyes darting, Kate. Eyes can’t dart, because they’re stuck in your head.”

Yes, exactly. They are stuck in your head, and everyone knows this. That’s why “darting eyes” works, actually. The minute the literal meaning comes up lacking, our brains switch over to a metaphorical one instead.

Don’t pretend you don’t know what darting eyes look like. I know you do.

A person’s eyes have long been synonymous with the scope of what they can see, but modern prescriptivists would have us believe that we should restrict the use of “eyes” in favor of “gaze.” And don’t even think about eyes doing anything beyond looking at other people.

I mean, unless you’re Shakespeare, that is.

Sonnet 137:

Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes,
That they behold, and see not what they see?
They know what beauty is, see where it lies,
Yet what the best is take the worst to be.
If eyes, corrupt by over-partial looks,
Be anchor’d in the bay where all men ride,
Why of eyes’ falsehood hast thou forged hooks,
Whereto the judgment of my heart is tied?
Why should my heart think that a several plot,
Which my heart knows the wide world’s common place?
Or mine eyes, seeing this, say this is not,
To put fair truth upon so foul a face?
In things right true my heart and eyes have err’d,
And to this false plague are they now transferr’d.

William? Have you been ignoring prescritivist advice again, hmm? But surely that was a fluke, right?

Sonnet 5:

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell

Sonnet 14:

Mine eyes have drawn thy shape

Sonnet 78:

Thine eyes, that taught the dumb on high to sing
And heavy ignorance aloft to fly,
Have added feathers to the learned’s wing
And given grace a double majesty.

Sonnet 121:

For why should others’ false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?

But it’s only in the sonnets, right? He can take poetic license in a sonnet.

Haha.

All’s Well That Ends Well, Act V Scene 3:

KING. Now, pray you, let me see it; for mine eye,
While I was speaking, oft was fasten’d to’t.

and later,

LAFEU. Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon.

Yep! Eyes playing tricks TWICE IN THE SAME SCENE! Now try this next one.

Antony and Cleopatra, Act III, Scene 10:

ENOBARBUS. That I beheld;
Mine eyes did sicken at the sight and could not
Endure a further view.

Shall I continue? If you go to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare over on Project Gutenberg, you’ll find hundreds of “eyes.” Shakespeare’s eyes draw, eat, smell, and speak. They are anchored and fastened. They sicken and stay and bend and turn. They are, in short, horrendously active in ways that their physical limitations might proscribe.

AND THAT’S OKAY.

Can “eyes” be overused in a text? Unequivocally, yes. But insofar as restrictions upon what task the eyes might or might not be capable of performing? CAN IT, GRAMMAR-BOTS.

You know what the author means when they reference someone’s eyes darting around the room. Quit straining at gnats.

/soapbox