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.