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Keeping It Real

August 10, 2010

I was actually going to talk about the basics of writing, but C.J. beat me to it. So, I must tackle a subject I feel is just as important. And, once again, I received my inspiration from the crappy “original” movies on SyFy.

What I’m going to talk about is something that doesn’t exist on that channel – believability.

Even though science fiction requires readers to suspend belief, we writers  must still have credibility so people will accept them as truth or explain them sufficiently to make the accept what they read or see like the world of the  Martin Caidin’s Cyborg or just about anything by Michael Crichton.

That said, let’s look at believable characters.

Sounds simple enough, except when life imitates art. Let’s face it. A lot of us are inspired to write books not from other books, but because of movies. Movie characters, as a whole, are either larger than life or amalgams (combinations of people). This is often done for time or to allow movie-goers to only have to follow a few characters.

You should not try this formula to make book characters.

Case in point: Quicksilver (2000) by Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens. This wife and husband are best known for the Star Trek collaborations, mostly with William Shatner (which should set off alarms bells instantly). But,     they also jumped into the techno thriller genre dominated by Tom Clancy, Dale Brown and Stephen Coonts. Unfortunately, reality didn’t jump in with their lead characters.

Amy Bethune is a second-year midshipman who, via a couple of hand-to-hand combat classes, becomes a female Rambo, dispatching terrorists like Steven Seagal. Major Sinclair is an ex-Delta Force commando (sorry, but females aren’t allowed in Delta Force) with enough skill to persuade the President to allow her to go in alone to save the Pentagon.

Or, to balance the gender scale, clink on the link to Wikipedia to see how impossibly manly Henry Ralston’s Doc Savage was made to be.

Compare all of them to Tom Clancy’s hero, Jack Ryan, who doesn’t shoot a single bad guy while trying to escape that deadly ambush in Bogota in Clear and Present Danger. Why? Because he’s not a trained agent nor does he carry a gun. Still, no one would say that Ryan isn’t heroic.

But, let’s say you want to keep the two-dimensional beefcake hero and the “beautiful scientist.” If you can’t make the characters halfway believable, then you need to really emphasize the next point — believable plot.

This includes settings like time and place, like Harry Turtledove’s alternate history science fiction novels. Sure, time may pass your technology by, like it did with Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, but if you base it on real-time, fans will forgive you if NASA goes astray with its exploration timeline like it did in 1974.

By definition, a “plot” is the main story or plan of a novel or book or story.

“Sub-plots” are stories within the story. They are often essential to explain characters’ backgrounds or back stories for the main plot. In the story line for Godzilla (1954), the main plot was a prehistoric monster attacking Tokyo and man’s effort to stop it. The subplot involved Emiko Yemane’s love affair with Ogata while being engaged to Dr. Serizawa, accidental creator of the Oxygen Destroyer. As Raymond Burr intoned, it was “the usual triangle but one that would play a part in the lives of millions.”

Compare that to the far-fatched back story of Joanna Dark in Perfect Dark: Initial Vector. that sounded as far-fetched as the X-Box 360 video game it was based on. Or compare it to just about romantic sub-plot in an action/adventure, horror or science fiction novel. They always seem forced (except for Vampire Vacation).

Also, make sure your plot fits the story. Don’t make the story fit the plot. For example, think of any slasher flick where horny teens accidentally or purposely find themselves at abandoned, creepy places, like a house of wax, a summer camp where teens have been slaughtered for years, abandoned factories, abandoned secret underground government labs.

In real life, we’d have a hard time believing people would go there. We would question people who enter dark rooms without turning on the lights. We would wonder how an entire town could be wiped out and the government could keep it quiet in the age of the Internet and cell phones. We’d roll our eyes if seed pods took over the entire city overnight instead of gradually and stealthily (pardon my adverbs, please).

Keep it real or real enough to fool the reader.

We need the firm ground of reality for our feet to rest on. We can’t change things to the absurd so that they fit what we had in mind. If you want a bunch of people to be locked together in an isolated place facing an unseen horror, then make it plausible. Like the scientists in the Arctic who find a UFO in the middle of a normal blizzard in John W. Campbell’s classic Who Goes There?

And please don’t introduce stock characters just so you have someone to kill off or some way to add sex to the story. I tried it. It doesn’t work.

How do you know when you’ve achieved this believability?

When you reread the story to yourself after putting it away for a while and it doesn’t sound cheesy. If it does, rewrite it.

Trust me. I’ve been writing for 30 years and I can honestly say that I’ve cut a lot of cheese.

Believe me.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2010 10:55 am

    Great comments and good things for a writer to think about. Suspending disbelief. Making it Real, or if it isn’t real, at least believable.
    What, you don’t add sex to the story just to have the sex? I’m shocked!
    I agree with you 100% on character and characgter-driven plot (as you will see tomorrow). Can’t have a good story without a well-rounded character. All those examples are perfect. Tom Clancy’s books and plots start to feel like the same pattern, but I still love reading about Jack Ryan, at least for awhile longer.
    And sometimes a world or city, place can be a character, too. New Orleans, a futuristic world. The Sphere was a character. Nice when it all weaves together.
    Great post. Great advice.

  2. J.D. Brown permalink*
    August 10, 2010 11:35 am

    Great post, Greg!

    I’m so glad you touched on the subject of believability because it’s something I often find myself arguing about with new writers when I critique for them. Their excuse is always “Hey, it’s fiction!” Well sorry but that is not good enough. Being fiction only goes so far. It goes just enough for the reader to say “Okay, I’ll believe that there are Space Vampires and Ape Pirates fighting WWIV in the year 3010…” but the reader is still going to want to know “WHY?” Why are there Space Vampires and Ape Pirates? Where did they come from? Why are they fighting each other?

    I have to disagree with you about one tiny detail, though. I have never found writing motivation in a movie. Never. Sometimes a good book will inspire me, but usually it’s little things in my day-to-day life that pop ideas into my head. Music, society, pop-culture, and my fellow humans play a big part. But never movies lol.

    • August 10, 2010 3:42 pm

      Hey, J.D., it’s a free country. We can disagree. What I was saying was that too many aspiring writers are inspired by the movies. They see “Twilight” and then they put pen to paper. The market is already crowded enough with the people who were inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s books and now you add in hundreds or thousands who saw the movies.

      I mean, there are thousands of teen girls blogging about Edward or Jacob and many are doing those Text novels.

      I’m not sure how long you’ve been following Wicked Writers, but I mentioned in a way earlier post that I was inspired to write by watching “Creature Double Feature” on WLVI Channel 56 in Boston as a kid 30 years ago. I watched those cheesy sci-fi and horror flicks almost religiously.

      However, the inspiration led me to go to the library to find out more about writing. Writers today just go straight to their computer. You can read C.J.’s blog and see that many don’t even have the basics down.

      • August 10, 2010 6:39 pm

        Don’t get me started on all the teen vamp romance crap out there written by barely literate fans! My biggest fear is it will quash the market for my book!

        And I really like my book 😦

        Geez, I wish the thing would sell already and save me the headache of self-publishing. But alas, if wishes were dollars we’d all be rich.

        Oh – and Greg, thanks for not slamming V V. I thought I balanced the sex with the story pretty good, but others may think it’s too much. Time will tell.

      • August 10, 2010 8:48 pm

        Who knows, C.J. You may be critiquing the next Vampire Vacation style author (with a few tips and a lot of work, albeit).

  3. Mike Wilson permalink
    August 11, 2010 3:45 am

    Re J&G Reeves-Stevens and Quicksilver, you should do your research before complaining. Females have undergone modified special forces training for Delta Force and then been deployed as operators. Do a Google search on “Funny Platoon” and be enlightened. It’s all explained in the book if you had bothered to actually read it instead of making cheap cracks about their Trek novels which, after all, are written for a completely different audience than their technothrillers. Or do you want to attack them for believability for their Batman episodes, too?

    Rather than a writer who strains the limits of willing suspension of disbelief, the worse sin is committed by writers who don’t do the research. That would be a writer like you.

    Stephen King says it often: To be a writer, you have to be a reader. That means read carefully. Which is not how you read Quicksilver.

    • August 11, 2010 9:53 am

      Actually, Mike, I did read the book. I had it in my library until a local book donation to a high school.

      And I did my research. All research indicated that, at best, “funny platoon” was an intel-gathering unit that sometimes worked alongside Delta Force. Had they linked her to the CIA’s Special Activities Division, which does not list any specific rules barring women, then I might have had a better time believing it.

      Don’t get me wrong. I have read the Reeves-Stevens Star Trek books. I just haven’t found their 10 collaborations with William Shatner to be that good. Although, they were probably there to ADD credibility to Shatner.

      Anyway, as I said, I did read how the book explained Major Sinclair and it still seemed to stretch her role to make her later actions seem more grounded. Plus, I read a lot of reviews of the book, ranging from calling it a five-star thriller better than anything Tom Clancy ever did to claptrap that sounded like William Shatner had created the characters.

      While I was not that severe, I did agree more with the more negative reviews.

      And, for the record, a lot of the male action heroes in this genre are stretched to the point of unbelievability, too. Tom Clancy’s “Rainbow Six,” for example and all those books where only one man can stop an entire army, aided only by his “beautiful” sidekick (scientist, FBI agent, doctor, etc.). Some people have said the same thing about my character — the Adventurer — and they were right; I changed the circumstances to make the story more believable, so even I’ve fallen into the trap.

      But, we must agree to disagree. It’s obvious we had different interpretations of the novel.

      Still, thank you for reading my blog and taking time to rip me a new one to remind me that the world does not revolve around me.

  4. August 11, 2010 5:16 pm

    You did it again, Greg… Rabbits and hats!

    Great post on the subject of plausibility (did you read my theory of art?…oops, only kidding).

    Really, though (punn intended) I whole heartedly agree; fiction is an extension of a current reality. If it is to engage its audience it must allow that audience to reach into with their feet firmly on the ground – it is an opening up of possibility. All good art it.

    IMHO there is another option – there are those works that are sooooo far ahead of time that they need subsequent interpretation (or at least letting reality catch up!) Watch out for some fiction that you write off now as being totally unreal – it may come back to bite you!!

    Now, what the hell am I going to write about? 🙂

  5. August 12, 2010 1:20 pm

    Great points here Greg. I was just watching the Sy-fy channel the other day and was appalled by what was showing. I turned to my husband and said “Is it a competition to see who can write the worst story?” They seem to get worse every day! And, they are all the same – some chemicals were carelessly dumped or a secret cave was uncovered where some creature lived for thousands of years. And then the mutated creatures are released into the world and try to eat everyone alive. *sigh* I can handle the cheesiness to a point – but not even some originality? So sad.

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