Friday, August 9, 2019

How Real Is Your Fiction?

The other day, a fellow writer and I discussed her upcoming novel. Without giving away too much, part of our conversation involved creating something that could predict certain aspects of the future. Needless to say, this is fiction. However, fiction is always at its best when the reader embraces this new version of reality, which creates a problem: How does a story maintain this believability while working with a clearly unbelievable premise?

The flux capacitor - the ultimate symbol of believable fiction 
First, let's establish a few ground rules. Of top importance - genre. Sci-fi, fiction-fantasy, alternate history; these all come with an informal understanding that wild, outrageous things will exist, and some liberties must be granted. Anyone who reads The Hobbit either grants the author certain freedoms or loses the chance to explore this world. Such freedoms include accepting that a dragon with the size and weight of Smaug could never ever fly under normal circumstances. We accept this flight and move on, under the presumption that there might be magics or other mystical things at play that would take chapters to explain, and we would much rather get on with the story than understand the magical metaphysics of a flying dragon. Every genre has its Smaug, and we price that into the genre.

Some genres are not as clear, however, so the writer has to lay out the groundwork for how certain elements work. Even though many readers grew up knowing the rules for vampires, werewolves, zombies, and all the other things that go bump in the night, during the past thirty years we have witnessed new interpretations. Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series put a new spin on vampires that Bram Stoker likely never considered, as well as on werewolves. Zombies are no longer W. B. Seabrook's mindless creatures in The Magic Island - they now are fully fleshed out in Daniel Waters' Generation Dead and Mira Grant's Newsflesh series. However, in these series, the rules for these creatures are formally established and adhered to. This creates a clear sense of reality within their fiction, and the reader embraces the new normal.

But what about when something unbelievable exists in a world as real as, say, modern-day Chicago? A person living in an abandoned warehouse where he raises a dragon? A scientist who finally perfects the first time machine? A community of custodians throughout the Loop who are intelligent, self-replicating androids? We want this version of Chicago to be as real as can be, but now we need to sell this incredulous idea. There are some basic dos and don'ts that allow the wild to be real.

If someone has invented a time machine, don't try to explain too many details; after all, details about something that doesn't exist can open doubts in the reader's mind. Rather, throw around a few scientific terms mixed with fiction and reality - a "quantum splicer" offers science and fantasy without detail. Anyone know what a flux capacitor is? It's enough to make the Back to the Future franchise work. Maybe the person raising the dragon doesn't understand how the 12-ton beast can fly, but when its wings start flapping, he feels the air swirl around him and an electricity resets his Fitbit. No real details, but enough to say that something else is going on, and the reader moves forward.

The biggest don't is a simple one. Don't forget that characters have to behave in a real manner. The man raising the dragon is probably used to seeing this. However, when his fiancee walks into the warehouse and sees a dragon-feeding session, she can't just say, "So this is what you've been doing all this time?" She had best act in a manner that we think most Chicagoans would if they see a FREAKING DRAGON! Reactions still have to be genuine, at least at first, and then steered toward where the author wants to go. If the reaction doesn't seem real, the reader loses connection. Quickly.

Real fiction is a delicate balance, but the best rule is to have fun with it. Explore your creativity and try out different ways a person would react when they discover their custodian is an android. When you enjoy the writing part, the reader will buy in to that immediately, and it will allow you room to wiggle around as adjust to the new situation with the custodian (no offense to Roombas).

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