Keeping It Real

>> Monday, October 4, 2010

Last time, I talked about selling the implausible, figuring out ways to make the implausible palatable to the discerning reader. However, building an acceptable framework to make an out-of-the-ordinary scenario or character acceptable is only part of the problem. The other half is living with the consequences.

What does that mean, living with the consequences? That means that, however nonsensical your premise/characters are in relationship to the real world as we know it, it has to makes sense in the world you create. The more out-of-normal you make a scenario or situation or character, the more consistent you need to be in reinforcing that scenario or situation or character. Whatever your framework, you need to be true to it, whether far future, pure fantasy, alternate reality or historical.

Keep your rules consistent. This is most useful for SF/Fantasy writers, but it can be true for anyone. If mages can't have children in your reality, don't give one an illegitimate child later. Any world has a framework of what is and isn't true. The more original your world, the more rules and reality you get to decide - but you have to stick with them. Every time you break a rule, or change what "is" in a world you've created, you blur the picture, take it that little bit out of focus. Do it often enough and the reality you're trying to project becomes blurry or with colors so disharmonious the reader can't suspend disbelief.

Keep what's normal normal. Every world, even the most bizarre, has some grounding in reality. Gravity works the same or creatures react the same way to heat and cold. The more normal you can make the normal aspects of your world or situation, the (a) more what's original stands out and interests and (b) the more believable those extraordinary aspects are. If you send someone back in time, don't have him invent cars and what-not if he was a shoe salesman in his own time. He's not going to back in to the time of Da Vinci and design a real helicopter in between hot sessions with smooth-skinned sweet-smelling women. The women he'll meet will have rotting teeth and hairy legs and lice. And they'll smell bad. And, within a short time, so will he.* The more real and accurate you build the past, the more realistically modern he is (and his reactions are to the realities of the past), the more effective such a scenario is.

People are people. Tall, short, tiny, furry, aquatic, superpowered, telepathic, sparkly, whatever, they still act in a way people can identify with or, well, no one's going to identify with them. If that happens, your scenario's going to go to pot. Oftimes, that means giving at least some human characteristics to those who aren't human (like rabbits in Watership Down), but, more importantly, it means that the characters in your story behave in a believable way within the framework of that story. People act with believable motivation (and, yes, stupidity can be one of those motivations, but it ought not to be the primary one for your protagonists) or it won't work. Far too frequently, a plot or situation is contrived by making a character act, well, completely out of character for a period of time. Like a fantastical scenario, an apparently out-of-character action needs to have a plausible explanation or your character will falter. Do it too often, and your reader will trip right out of the story.

*Oy, historical novels. I almost can't read them, so many of them are so awful. And I love history. It's not enough to get the historical details right (and even that happens far less often than it should). You have to build the world right. The further back you go, the harder it is. If you set a historical novel in Elizabethan England, the people won't speak like they do on the Tudors. They'll sound like a Shakespearean play because that's how they talked back then (only with less iambic pentameter and, likely, a smaller vocabulary). A lady's maidservant in William the Conqueror's time wouldn't be reading letters from her lover - it's not even likely her mistress could read it. Don't be pulling out the hip baths and daily changes of clothing in 1670. Most people only had a handful of outfits because cloth production and sewing were hugely labor intensive. Ditto for bathes (and many thought them "dangerous"). And, for "nobility" doffing and donning clothes was equally challenging and not to be done without help.

And, for the love of God, don't give your character the traits of today's modern women or men. People, for all their individuality and talents, are also products of their time. If you want to write historicals, please please read contemporary literature first. If you can't drag yourself through Chaucer or Shakespeare or Austen, maybe you should pick another venue for your story.


  • Project Savior

    Well said,
    In fantasy it is tough to stay in character. Even writing a character that is completely at home with the strangest events going on around them, they tend to lose that in a more normal situation and act normally. It's tough to remember to make them act the same to the totally bizarre and the almost normal.

  • Project Savior

    I just noticed you completed your book, congratulations.

  • Stephanie Barr

    It's not actually quite finished, but I bumped past 90,000 words. But the draft is almost finished.

  • The Mother

    I agree on the historical fiction. But I also feel the same way when real historical figures are judged by modern standards (Sims, for example). On the other hand, as a feminist, my heart just stops sometimes over the misdeeds and misinformation of the past--even though it was the past and I know I shouldn't hold folks accountable.

  • Stephanie Barr

    I agree with you, The Mother, and not just historically. Culturally, it's easy to get judgemental about specific individuals and actions without a sense of the whole culture. That doesn't mean something isn't wrong, but we need to be careful about confusing evil with ignorance (willful or otherwise).

    Still, I understand what you're saying, both with regards to the past and the present day. I applaud your reminders of the actuality of the "bad old days" and I will continue to look askance at any books that misrepresent the reality of the past. If we pretend bad things didn't happen, well, we open ourselves up to reoccurrence.

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