On Sonder and Writing

Image: Daniel Hehn

Sonder (‘son • der), n

the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

— John Koenig, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

Have you ever found yourself walking down the street or sitting in a coffee shop and been struck by the sudden, dizzying realization that the person who just walked past you—the person you saw only as a vague blur, and will likely never see again—is a complete human being, with a life just as complex as yours? With joys as rich, and sorrows as deep, as those you love and know intimately? And that to them, you are the vague blur barely glimpsed from the corner of the eye?

Weird, huh?

We share a world with nearly eight billion other people, and yet, despite that (or perhaps because of it!), we can sometimes have trouble remembering that all those other people are people, with their own dreams, ambitions, goals, hurts and heartbreaks, fears and hopes…all the things that go along with being a person. When the numbers get so big, people become abstracts. At its worst, that leads to tragedies, or even atrocities. 

Eight billion people, eight billion stories, all of them just as rich as yours. Humbling, isn’t it?

Our last few essays about the Passionate Pantheon novels have all been on rather meta topics, and this one is no exception. We didn’t entirely intend for this to happen, but as our books have trended more towards the philosophical, so too did our thinking about the world of the novels, and in particular how we (and you!) as readers interact with the culture of the Passionate Pantheon as people who still have to live in the real world. 

There is a reason we recently got to thinking about sonder—really!—and it has to do with the novels, our approach to characters, and the reason we accidentally started working on the sixth novel in the series before we had even started the fifth. (As the kids today say, we accidentally a book.)

In the first Passionate Pantheon novel, The Brazen Altar, we meet (briefly) a minor character who appears on stage only to give one of the protagonists ritualized oral sex.

She didn’t have long to wait. The door opened with the same eerie noiselessness. A man entered, bare-chested, dressed in a simple loincloth of red and blue. A small round drone made of gold metal elaborately ornamented with beautiful traceries of silver and blue followed him in. 

Kheema’s eyes traveled down his smooth, clean-shaven body. He wore his long brown hair tied in a ponytail with a gold ring. His pupils were two tiny black dots in a field of orange. As her eyes moved downward, she realized that the loincloth was cut in front in a deep V, exposing an erect cock. It, too, was entirely hairless.

He smiled beatifically. A musical voice sang out from the tiny drone. “Greetings, Potential! I am Novice Hassen. I have been assigned to help you with your recitation. It is an honor to meet you.” The man bowed.

Kheema squirmed in her restraints. She was acutely, embarrassingly aware of how exposed she was, splayed wide open in front of this man, dripping with need, nothing hidden from view. She was also aware of his arousal. Her gaze lingered on his erection. Her body flushed. Her head filled with carnal thoughts of bodies entwining.

He knelt on the padded bench between her legs, hands clasped behind his back. “It is time to begin the recitation,” the drone sang.

Kheema tried to summon the memory of the words Janaié had coaxed from her body with her fingers. Her skin tingled with desire. “I—I—” She closed her eyes. “In the beginning was the Darkness.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Hassen said. He leaned forward. The tip of his tongue flicked against Kheema’s swollen clit.

That’s it. That’s why Hassen exists in the context of the novel: he gives the protagonist oral sex while she recites the litany of the City’s history. He speaks through a drone, not through his own vocal cords. There’s a reason for that…and it’s probably not the reason you expected.

Hassen, when he isn’t performing his duties teasing the main character while she struggles to remember the Litany, is a historian and a linguist. His area of specialization is psycholinguistics, and his sub-specialty is historical psycholinguistics. When he’s not going down on a bound Potential, he spends a lot of time searching the few historical records that remain in the City’s archives, trying to understand the language spoken by the colonists who first fled Earth-That-Was, and tease out how that language may have shaped their views of the world around them.

He chooses to speak through a drone because as an adult, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to hear and reproduce the sounds that exist in a language you didn’t grow up with. (Think how Japanese speakers struggle with the English l sound, or how English speakers encounter difficulty with the Hopi gḥ or Sanskrit Ṛg, which English speakers tend to pronounce something like “rig”.) Hassen has found a way to circumvent this problem: he can learn the language, and then use the drone to ‘speak’ sounds that don’t exist in his native language.

Of course, being able to speak when his mouth is occupied makes his role as the giver of ritual oral that much easier, which is the role we see him in, but it’s not all there is to him. It’s not even the most important thing about him. For him and the temple, it’s merely an incidental fringe benefit, no matter how appreciative of his tongue Kheema is.

Hassen, by virtue of the fact he speaks through a drone, can also make sounds the human vocal apparatus can’t do at all. He is, in the entire Passionate Pantheon series, the only human ever to take part in ‘drone choirs,’ the songs drones sing to mark sunrise, sunset, and the passage of important moments. (Even if only crudely and with little true understanding of the deep complexity of their melodies. It would take him many lifetimes to truly learn, even with many hundreds of years per lifetime.)

Drone choirs themselves also don’t appear in any of the novels (so far). A character in the fourth novel, Lanissae, mentions them in passing, but that’s it.

So a minor character who appears in only a few sentences in the novel has a rich life off-screen, one that involves the rather remarkable accomplishment of being the only human ever to participate in something that also occurs off-screen.

He has a life beyond his appearance in this one room, in this scene. In this world, he briefly brushes up against a future Sacrifice, and it’s a pleasant and fulfilling moment for him but it’s not life changing. If asked to name the things that are important to him, he wouldn’t even think to pick his duties with the Potentials as a major part of his life. In another book, he could have been the protagonist, and Kheema the passing blur.

Sonder.

That happens with many of the ancillary side characters. We’ve talked before about Ortin, a minor character with a scar who appears in a couple of scenes in Divine Burdens. We know why he has a scar (a very strange and unusual thing indeed in a world with nearly unlimited biomedical nanotech), and a few months back we set out to write a 3,500-word short story about why he has that scar.

Those 3,500 words bloomed into a 40,000 word novella, then we started finding interesting threads of other lives that wound through and around his, which we really wanted to explore as well. So we started writing about that, too. Soon we realized that this story needs to be an important part of the sixth novel, which is set in the same City as the second novel, about twenty years before the events of Divine Burdens.

We do plan at some point to write a short story about Hassen. His research touches on some really interesting bits of the City’s history. Life in the City is a little like life in the Church in 19th century Britain, in the sense that being a clergyman was just a job, it wasn’t the whole of what you do the way we think of it today—many clergymen were also scientists, mathematicians, writers. Hassen is a novice of the Temple, and has duties he performs as part of that role, sure…but he’s also a researcher and historian, and those are just as important to him as his liturgical roles.

 With a pinch of luck, the short story we tell about him won’t blow up into a novella too! (We make no guarantees, apparently we cannot be trusted not to accidentally a novel.) Of course, once we realized that the 3,500-word short story about Ortin’s scar had blown up into the seed for a book, we set it aside, because writing the sixth novel in the series before the fifth is just plain silly. (Though we will have a head start on book six, given we’ve now written close to 50,000 words of it!)

Sonder applies to fictional characters just as well as real people. The minor characters live in our heads and take up space in our thoughts, just as much as the protagonists do. Ask us a question about one of them and odds are, we’ve probably got an answer for you.

We know their histories, their motivations, their intentions, their joys and pains. For us, one of the things we seek to do when we write is convey a sense that the world is fractal: you can zoom into any part of it, any tiny detail (Ortin’s scar, Hassen’s drone) and find there a whole story waiting to be told. (And sometimes those stories hammer on the inside of our eyelids as we sleep, demanding to be told. Who are we to refuse?)

Now that we’ve set aside the sixth book, we’re really looking forward to the fifth. We’re itching to get started on it because, as the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett put it, our usual reward for finishing a book is that we get to start a new one. We’re putting a moratorium on that, and discussions about the book plot, characters, worldbuilding, etc, because we want to start that totally from scratch on a livestream where people can join us and ask their own questions, give their own thoughts, maybe add to the discussion.

We’ve picked a date we want to do this livestream—April 23, 2022, at 11AM Pacific/2PM Eastern/7PM GMT. Maybe if it gets enough interest, we might even consider doing it a few more times! 

Whether you’re a fan of the Passionate Pantheon series and want to get a behind-the-scenes peek, or you’re just interested in learning how to co-author a book remotely or start writing a novel, we hope we’ll see you there…and feel free to bring questions! Sign up on our mailing list for notifications before it happens! 

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