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Believability equals credibility

January 19, 2010

When I wrote this blog, I’d just wasted four hours of my life.  You guessed it.  I watched Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong. Looking for a silver lining, I realized that what the movie lacked is what I what I strive for — believability and strong characters.

Why? Because believability equals credibility.

Don’t believe me? Do the math:

Believe + ability = believability

Believability + strong characters = credibility

In King Kong, we see King Kong skating on a frozen pond. We see Naomi Watts atop the Empire State Building in a sleeveless night gown in the middle of winter without shivering once. We see Ann Darrow and King Kong form a relationship on Skull Island through what can only be described as the Helsinki Syndrome. And, after the ape has murdered every blonde he can lay his hands on in Times Square before Ann comes to him, we suddenly see “CSI” and “Criminal Minds.”

Peter Jackson wanted us to believe that?

Sorry, but the math was wrong.

Thus, when I write science fiction, I do my research.  The readers already suspend belief when they read science fiction and fantasy, but we must make them believe in the “science” we give them. I come up with my “science” and check on it, often working it backwards to see if it is grounded in some sort of reality. I strap down my facts rather than letting them pile up like a game of Jenga?

Next, I go for basic research. I find out the who, what, when, where and how. Sounds simple until you realize that I’ve violated one of the basic laws of writing — too many characters. It can be done, but with peril. I try the peril just to see if I can do it. It’s like cooking class in 5th grade when the teacher gave us 10 jellies and jams we could use for the filling of our muffins and I chose all of them…mixed together…in each muffin. Miss Cataldo, for the umpteenth time, I’m sorry.

To continue, I come up with names (I think of classmates, co-workers, neighbors, relatives, friends and just juxtapose the names; the phone book also works well).

I decide what places I want to use. If I use the Amazon, I must accurately choose cities and towns that are really along the river, like Belem. If I say a character eats lunch on the main street in Montevideo, Uruguay, I need to say that the street is 18 de julio.

Why? Because almost everyone has access to the Internet. They might find one of my facts interesting, go online to learn more and find out I got it all wrong.

Like when Thomas Wyndham, in his classic Day of the Triffids (1957), said that Mankind was blinded by a worldwide meteor shower that burned out the retinas of the human eye.  In reality, the glare from the meteorites hitting the atmosphere was only visible at night, so only half the world would have been affected.

Phew,  science fiction/fantasy is the hardest genre to write in. Wasn’t it Edison who said his work was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration?

Now, armed with my facts, I begin to write. I should be plotting out the story, but I was the guy in school who turned in the A-plus theme paper without doing the outline. I write, stop, look back, correct, change and then write anew. My attention span isn’t that great (I can write, read a book, watch TV, play on the computer, walk around, talk to myself and then write again, all in an hour — time for Dr. Phil, eh?).

When I finish a chapter, I leave it alone for a day or so, then go back and read it again to see how it sounds. Sounds maddening, doesn’t it?

I don’t recommend my style of writing (or lack thereof) to most people.

I’ll admit that I’m not as organized as C.J. Ellison, Supriya, Steve or even Wendy (just kidding, Wendy). I’m a journalist and we journalists usually operate by the mantra of “controlled chaos.” When I was writing Land of the Blind chapter by chapter for Harley Palmer’s Writing Academy, I had to take a suggestion and create a list of characters for reviewers to follow.  Sometimes, I need it to remind myself of my own characters like when Anna Velasquez suddenly became Anna Vasquez after chapter nine.

An important pillar of believability is “character development.” In science fiction/fantasy, characters have to be strong enough to rise above the science. On “24,” I wonder why that blonde CTU supervisor who is being stalked by an ex-boyfriend doesn’t just have some federal agent make him “disappear.”  However, I don’t expect that when Sarah Connor is being stalked by the Terminator. I would have to make Sarah strong enough to be able to deal with it on her own. I would not want people see her in danger and start yawning, like I did when Trinity bought the farm in Matrix Revolutions.

You need characters to be strong like Sarah Connor in "Terminator 2"

In Land of the Blind, I want you to feel Anna Velasquez’s relief when she finally kills the man who massacred her entire family.  And then I want you feel her horror when that “dead” man walks into her headquarters and wipes out her entire unit.  I need to make people understand what drives a man like Devereaux Marshall Fox and keep Maria Red Horse by Anna, no matters what happens to her.

I have to have strong, three dimensional characters —  more like Sarah Connor and less like Altaira (Forbidden Planet).

By now, you’re thinking that writing science fiction is pretty involved and it is. But, the more work you do on the front end, the less you do on the back end. As the saying goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

Like C.J. (Ellisson), I post my work (like Hunters and Land of the Blind) on (my stuff is on so others can offer reviews. It’s a good way to get reviews and to find the mistakes you missed, though the members tend to go a little easy on you (Lord knows I’ve stopped reading a story or two rather than give a 1.0 rating and go outside to throw up).

I also don’t let my family and friends read it until it’s published. I don’t want any bad feelings or fewer Christmas gifts.

So, to sum up, I put a lot of work into research and character development. I constantly tweak and rewrite. I then put it online for anonymous reviews.

All of this takes time, but the reward of finishing something that you’ve given your best effort can make it worth all the work. If I do it right, I should get this…

…and not this…

I hope this gives some insight to my writing style (and mental state).

P.S.: For those really serious about writing science fiction or fantasy, Go find a copy of the Hugo Award-winning author Orson Scott Card’s classic How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2010 9:05 am

    Good job! Love the pics – Next time try to insert them within your post like Wendy does for maximum effect (I was going to edit it and do it for you, but was afraid of messing things up).

    Character development is KEY to any good book – I’ve found in mine the main ones have been crystal clear in my head and I haven’t had to write them down, but now I’m starting to realize with the second book (and so many new members to Vivian’s seethe) that I have to figure out “who” everyone really is before I can give them an accurate voice.

    • January 19, 2010 3:07 pm

      Oh, I don’t think you could mess things up more than I did, C.J. I was fretting over the pics this morning at 0500. Maybe W.J. could tell me how to insert pics closer to the reference points.

  2. January 19, 2010 10:58 am

    So it’s been awhile since I saw King Kong…did Naomi Watts at least show off her cold nipples?

    Interesting insight into your writing, Greg. You bring up a lot of good points on maintaining believability for the audience. We writers sure can get wrapped up in our fantastic tales, and it’s awfully hard to let go of creations that may initially sound right, but turn out to be WAY off. I know I like to challenge the norms in a way that causes the reader to question their own beliefs, which is much easier with myth than science.

  3. January 21, 2010 7:49 pm

    Funny thing about research is that it can be a great way to avoid writing when you’re looking for a reason to procrastinate, no? (“Really, this is part of the process!”) Maybe that’s why I set my story in a real place (far away) around a real event (that I didn’t experience). Hm…

  4. March 13, 2010 12:38 am

    How do you do it,

  5. March 13, 2010 3:06 pm

    Incredible. is great.

  6. March 14, 2010 5:58 am

    Nice post. is the bomb.


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