The One-and-a-Half World

Verisimilitude is one of the most powerful devices at the author’s disposal. The ability to create a world that feels real can separate a good story from a great one. Readers are much more easily drawn into a world with systems and rules they already comprehend, and characters that feel real are characters who can evoke an emotional response.

In genre writing, though, “realness” can be tricky. The real world is boring! That’s why we want to escape it, right? It’s so tempting to give up on realism altogether, to create what is called a “Secondary World”, that is, one with its own rules and laws, one where magic replaces technology, maybe–a world where even the basic laws of physics require lengthy exposition. Such worlds can be incredible escapes, but they often fail to resonate with readers looking for meaning and humanity.

Good genre authors know how to walk the line, to create a world that is neither too real, nor entirely secondary–one with real and potent connections to the Earth we currently inhabit, but still including elements of the fantastic, of the alien, of the monstrous. They create a “heightened” reality where you can usually count on real world rules–and when they’re broken, it’s for a good reason.

This one-and-a-half world looks a lot like ours. It’s probably still called Earth, and it probably doesn’t include faster than light travel or commonplace magic. If there are monsters in this world they tend to hide in the shadows. If there are aliens, they may not show themselves at all–instead choosing to influence Earth through fleeting psychic contact with chosen humans who, should they choose to share their received wisdom, are unlikely to be widely believed.

Yet it isn’t exactly our world. Things that happen there are very slightly larger than life. More dramatic, more emotionally powerful. People obsess over breakups years after you and I would have moved on. They are capable of acts of incredibly heroics that, in the real world, would put real people in the hospital or the morgue. The rules here are never ignored–but they can be bent, when it makes a story more interesting.

Though every one-and-a-half world will have its own exceptions to real world rules, here are a few suggestions to get you thinking about how your own story can benefit from lurking on the threshold:

1. In the 1.5 world, magic exists, but it’s subtle. An actual wizard who could turn lead into gold or pull unlimited rabbits from a hat would change everything. The world we know would be transformed overnight–it would quickly become unrecognizable. In a 1.5 world magic can exist but only if it can be easily mistaken for stagecraft and sleight of hand–or if its effects are temporary, contingent, and subjective. Psychic powers just feel more realistic than your classic staff of fireballs.

2. There are very few safety codes there. You’re probably no more than a few dozen yards, right now, from a gas main. Your house has enough electricity in it to kill you a dozen times over. The only reason explosions are not an everyday event in your life is that teams of very dedicated engineers have worked for decades to make your life safe. The 1.5 world would be a terrible place to live, but it makes for dramatic stories. Anything that could reasonably explode probably will, and houses burn down all the time. Guns are much more accurate, and yet bullets can, under certain circumstances, be dodged. They’re also highly selective–one bullet will almost always kill a villain, while a hero can take five or six torso hits and still have enough strength to avenge their dead partner.

3. Conversations are much shorter. Mostly because people in the 1.5 world are far more likely to tell the truth. Think about all the conversations you had today–how often did you actually speak your mind, or express your true emotions and preferences? Dialogue in the 1.5 world is pithier, wittier, and much more concise than in the real world. Important characters never stumble over their words and they always have a joke at the ready. They’re still riddled with self-doubt and indecision; they just don’t sound like it.

4. Technobabble is kept to a minimum. In science fiction it’s way too easy to invoke futuristic technology to solve a problem. “I know it looked like I was decapitated, but the nanites in my blood built a collagen scaffolding and regrew my damaged tissues in a matter of moments!” You can always adjust the fundamental field harmonic to overcome the inverted triangle problem and rectify a plasma field at fourteen terawatts. At least, you can if you’re okay with your technology being indistinguishable from magic–and thereby breaking your hoped-for verisimilitude. In the 1.5 world you need to at least have a rough idea as to what all of your technospeak means–and you need to find a way to make sure the reader understands it, too. That means being able to explain your technology to someone who failed physics in high school. The tech level in the 1.5 world is–at most–ten years ahead of ours. Hand waving and invoking alien technology will always feel like cop outs in a world where smartphones are still the height of human achievement.

There’s nothing wrong with stories set in secondary worlds. Some of the classics of genre fiction take place in universes completely unconnected to the here and now. Yet think about how many of those stories really feel character-driven, how many of them you still have an emotional connection with years later. Try visiting the 1.5 world some time, and see if your story doesn’t immediately feel more resonant, real meaningful.

Genre Film Shorthand: The Eyes Have It

***WARNING: The following will contain a significant spoiler for the film Pacific Rim: Uprising and minor spoilers for a lot of other films***

There’s a character in the film who is possessed by an ill-defined alien intelligence, and you know this because at one point he starts talking in a voice rougher and deeper than human vocal cords should be able to generate. This is an old trope, one dating back to The Exorcist at the very least, and like most such tropes it has become so familiar to genre fans that we no longer need it explained. It’s a kind of unmistakable shorthand, one we all can read.

It made me think of another kind of shorthand, one you’ll find in dozens of genre films and TV shows (and occasionally even in books). A visual convention that conveys instantly that a character is no longer in control of themselves. Specifically, when a character’s eyes change color, typically becoming one solid color, you know the character’s been taken over.

There’s some small real world basis for this. It’s true that sometimes when a person suffers a seizure, their eyes will roll upward in their head until only the whites can be seen. This doesn’t happen for all people with seizures but it is deeply disturbing to see when it does happen. Genre film creators, probably since the dawn of cinema, have been using this visual cue to signify that a character has lost control of themselves. It’s been used so often that it’s actually generated a series of corollaries, each of which send their own message:

  • All White Eyes: When a character’s eyes cloud over and turn white it means they’ve become a mindless shell of themselves. You see this a lot in zombie movies. Occasionally you’ll also see it in stories about hypnosis, though more often they’ll use:
  • Eyes Closed at Inappropriate Times: A character walking around with their eyes closed is most likely sleepwalking, but it can also represent that they’ve entered a dream world or simply that they’re under mesmeric control.
  • Eyes Filled with Lightning: Almost always suggests that a character has been infused with some kind of otherworldly power, either by intentionally accepting it into themselves or having it imposed on themselves by an ancient/alien artifact, etc. A more modern version of this is when a fiery orange glow can be seen in the character’s eyes (see Iron Man 3).
  • Reptilian Eyes: The character is a doppelgänger or a shape-shifter; they may be able to hide the slit pupils and golden sclera behind a nictitating membrane (somehow) or this may be the only sign we get of their alien nature. This was not original to V but it certainly used the trope to great effect. Bonus points if other characters don’t notice the weird eyes until it’s far too late.
  • Pupils Dilate/Contract Suddenly: Typically this means a character is under the effect of a powerful drug, or has had a moment of cosmic epiphany. The fact this happens to everyone when they enter a suddenly dark or bright room is almost never shown in film and TV.
  • Unblinking Eyes: Often combined with a staring, intense gaze that conveys a character is inhuman or at least mentally deranged. You don’t see this one as much as you used to, though it popped up in one of the Harry potter films.
  • Eyes Change Color: Very rare, but occasionally you’ll see this used as shorthand for a character who suddenly and magically becomes far more attractive than they used to be, such as when they are reborn as a vampire (Interview with the Vampire uses this, I’m pretty sure–I would have to go back and rewatch the movie to make sure. The Craft definitely has a scene of this).
  • Eyes Turn Solid Black: The character has been possessed by Ultimate Evil. Satan, Lucifer, or some malign Lovecraftian alien intelligence, maybe. Also very rare–and incredibly striking when you do see it. Interestingly, you also occasionally see this one used to show that a character is magically observing the world through the eyes of an animal.

Honorable Mention: Maybe the best use of this shorthand I’ve ever seen was in the movie Lucy. I have a lot of problems with that film, but there’s a wonderful sequence where Lucy’s eyes change color, then turn reptilian, then bird-like, and so on. It’s a very quick scene but it manages to convey that the main character is recapitulating all of biological evolution in the span of a few eye blinks. It’s brilliant because it gets its message across with no dialogue and most people who see the scene understand what it’s saying without exposition.

Like any kind of nonverbal cue, when you use these things as shorthand they’re fine–in fact, they immediately signal to the viewer that they are in familiar genre territory. But when they’re done in interesting, innovative ways they become the true essence of art.

Backstory and Front-Loading

Your characters didn’t appear out of the ether, newly created on page one of your book. At least, they shouldn’t feel like they did. They had lives before the story starts, families, jobs, religious affiliations, pets. If you’re going to make them feel real to the reader, you need to know their backstories. You need to at least think about where they came from.

But how much of their backstory should your reader see?

Backstory can be useful when creating characters to sketch out their entire lineage and life story. It can help you get a handle on who they are, so that when you’re writing their dialogue and plotting their actions, you’ll know what they will–and won’t–do. This is useful.

But when it comes time to actually write the story, consider not including that backstory in your text. Think about leaving it all in your notebook. Ask yourself very seriously how much of that backstory matters to the current story. Do we really care whether the Space Pirate Captain’s grandmother was fond of a certain brand of tea?

Everything you write in your story should be meaningful to that story. It should serve a purpose. Whether you’re writing a 5,000 word short or a 200,000 word epic, you just don’t have room for extraneous information.

Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, used to talk about character stories. His players would come to him with fully fleshed-out characters who had deep, rich experiences before they arrived at the table. “Character story,” he said, “is what happens between level one and level five.”

(If you don’t understand what that means, you may be reading the wrong writing blog, by the way.)

In other words, the best way to get character details across is to show them. To dramatize them during the story.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that backstory–whether it’s told as flashback or narration or a letter found in an old dictionary–slows narrative down to a crawl. It distracts your reader from the rip-roaring plot of the adventure they came to read. It brings up the question of why, if this old news is so important, did you choose to start your book later on in time? Why not write the prequel first?

The other reason to avoid extensive backstory is front-loading. Front-loading is the problem that occurs when a writer needs to put a lot of detailed information into Act I, information the reader will need to comprehend and digest before they can understand the rest of the story. Front-loading is bad. It feels like homework. It doesn’t just slow down your plot–it turns it into a slog. A death march.

If your plot hinges entirely on what a character’s father said to them when they were a child, if your worldbuilding requires you to include three chapters on how the kingdom came to be ruled by somebody’s housecat… that’s front-loading, and it can ruin a great book.

Front-loading isn’t just a character problem, as we saw in that last example, but when it comes attached to characterization–when it’s all about backstory–it’s doubly deadly. There are readers who enjoy a good history lesson at the start of a book. But when you front-load the backstory of your main (or even worse, your secondary) character(s), you sabotage your story right from the start.

The first act of your story is about establishing things as they are now. Not how they got their way. The first act is where you tell us who the important characters are–if you have a lengthy scene with your character’s math teacher, then your story becomes, de facto, about that math teacher. The first act is about establishing stakes, but front-loading backstory makes it feel like your story is just the epilogue to some other tale.

Take a very close look at the backstory of the character you’re writing right now. How did that backstory effect them? How did it change them? Rather than describing those past events in detail, could you instead get away with, say, just showing us who they are today? Could the collection of tics and mannerisms that make up a character speak for themselves? Can we get that your character is an alcoholic not by describing their drinking days, but by showing how terrified they are of going to a wedding party where everybody will be drinking?

If your backstory is slowing you down, cut it. You may have to find ways to get information across–creative ways, innovative ways. But solving problems like that is ninety per cent of what it means to be a writer.

RIP Stephen Hawking, a Great Writer

Given the effect he had on the world of science and our ability to comprehend our universe, you’ll hear a lot on the internet about Stephen Hawking today. He was a truly great scientist, perhaps the most influential since Einstein. His contributions to the fields of physics and astronomy are legendary and immortal.

I’d like to pay tribute, however, to his abilities as a writer. Specifically to his work, A Brief History of Time. I think it may be the best work of science ever written for a popular audience. It certainly shaped me as a science fiction writer and as a global citizen.

ABHOT is wonderfully written, and it never shies away from or apologizes for its subject matter. Hawking takes the reader through some of the gnarlier bits of physics from the very large–black holes and the nature of time and gravity–to the infinitesimally small. He does so in a way that anyone can understand, with very little math involved.

His chapter on quantum spin isn’t just the best explication of the concept I’ve read. It’s the only one I’ve ever understood. He writes about black holes as if he had first hand knowledge of them, as if he’d spent years of his life living among them. It’s a wonderful book and worth your time if you haven’t already read it.

ABHOT isn’t just good, though. It’s necessary. It is vital. Starting with Einstein and Bohr, physics went through a revolution in the early twentieth century. Newtonian physics was easy for the layman to understand. It made sense, good, logical sense, and a thinking person could look at the three laws of motion and nod sagely, thinking yes, that makes sense.

The world of the quantum–and of the very large–does not. Starting with basic atom theory and wandering through the particle zoo, twentieth century scientists discovered that the world is in fact counter-intuitive. That it has definite, clear rules that you can’t work out based just on what you can see and touch.

This realization, that the universe was not designed for human senses and basic human comprehension, created a massive crisis in intellectual circles. If the world doesn’t make sense, how are we to grapple with it? How can we possibly make a place for ourselves in a universe that defies our most basic assumptions?

That tension directly led to the rise of science fiction. Writers like Asimov tried to explain the weird away. Lovecraft, on the other hand, located true horror in that gap between what we can intuit and what is real.

But it would take Hawking, and his little book, to truly bridge the gap. Only a very small number of people really understood concepts like supersymmetry, quantum entanglement, and the Casimir effect back when ABHOT was written. Today, Uncertainty and the particle/wave duality are–or at least should be–commonly known concepts. Even people with only a basic understanding of science have heard of Schrödinger’s Cat.

This is in no small part due to ABHOT. Hawking laid out the concepts in such a way that they could be understood if not easily, then at least with a little work. The reasonable reader might not nod sagely and say, yes, particle pairs make sense, but they could at least understand why they were important.

ABHOT was an immense bestseller in its day. It still sells very well and for good reason–its lessons are still (mostly) valid, and more important every day.

Science is vital to our lives at every turn, and our ignorance of its laws is no excuse for ignoring them. As we face a world with an uncertain future due to climate change, as we struggle to find sources of clean energy and better, faster computers, we rely on the hidden world constantly. The world that Stephen Hawking made manifest, the world he inhabited in a way that only genius can.

Bad Advice: Write Like Your Parents Are Already Dead

Because, of course, then you’ll be liberated from the fear of offending them. Or you can write about them, even better, right? You can write about how crazy they were or how they treated you or what they did to keep you from writing. Right?

It’s true that writers need to be a little fearless when they choose their subjects. They have to write violent or dark or–gasp–sexy scenes and if they’re worried what their families or close friends think, they’ll hold back, they’ll soft-pedal things. It’s true that the great writers are the ones who tackle subjects nobody wants to talk about. The ideas and concepts that might make them unpopular.

Right?

I don’t entirely buy it. Oh, it’s good to be a little libertine in your choices as a writer. You want drama and excitement and a little adrenaline to spice up your stories. But there are two reasons I think this is, if not terrible advice, at least worth questioning. The first is that your parents–actually, let’s open this up and say your loved ones, regardless of their legal relationship to you–are the best support staff you’re going to get. They can nurture you and be your best first readers and their stories can inform what you write. One of the best, if not the best moment of my entire career, happened at a dinner table one night while I was visiting my parents.

“Here are my five favorite David Wellington novels, and why,” my father said. Then he went on to list and describe them.

My Dad had read my books. And liked them. He’s passed, now, and I miss so much the support, encouragement, and love he gave me. While he was still alive he got to see me succeed as a writer. He was so proud. I wouldn’t trade anything for that.

Writing is a solitary activity and it can be soul-crushing. The isolation and daily discouragement you get as a writer is your worst enemy. Your loved ones are what can keep you going in the darkest moments. Don’t see them as impediments. See them as resources. If they truly love you, of course they’ll want you to use their stories, to adapt their anecdotes. You can’t write in a vacuum.

The second reason that this particular piece of advice is bad is that strictures and limitations are what make art great.

The pure, free play of the writer’s mind gave us Ulysses, and To The Lighthouse. Those are great books… but they’re rare. And they should be. Most great stories come from some kind of artificial rule, some boundary set up against the author’s progress by forces they couldn’t control.

There’s a reason why the Monty Python movies aren’t as good as the television sketches. Forced to work within arbitrary rules of censorship on state media, the Pythons were forced to go absurd–they couldn’t just make endless jokes about shit and fucking, so they had to get surreal.

Almost all pulp fiction passed through a rigorous gauntlet of editors and gate-keepers, people who either demanded the stories be less salacious–or more so. Then there’s the greatest road block of them all: the readership, in all of its strident demands and capricious wants. I would argue–and I know there are many who disagree–that Lovecraft’s greatest stories are the ones he wrote specifically for the Weird Tales audience. Not the Poe pastiches and noodly nightmares he created when nobody was watching.

Editors refine stories. Audiences push authors to find universal themes, to find why stories are important. Writing in a vacuum would ignore those tensions, pretend they don’t exist.

For the sake of your readership, and your own mental health–don’t write like your parents are already dead. Right the story that’s going to make your father (or mother, or wife, or cousin, or crazy best friend) proud of you.

Politics in Genre Writing

Short answer? Go for it.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

You’ve probably heard someone tell you this by now. That they don’t want “politics” in science fiction, or horror, or Disney Princess fanfic. Of course we all know what they really mean. They don’t want you to write anything that disagrees with their personal politics.

It is in fact possible that if you include a strong political stance in your writing, you’ll lose a few readers. You might also gain a few more–who agree with you. Who want to support your message.

You may have been told that if you take a strong political stance in your writing, you’ll get harassed online. I’ve got news for you–you will get harassed online as soon as you put your name in the public eye. It’s something you learn to deal with as a writer. There will be angry words, and name-calling, and maybe even threats, regardless of what you say.

Politics is part of our daily life, maybe more now than at any time in the past (certainly more than any point in my lifetime). If your characters don’t have political views, they’ll feel less realistic.

And if you write in the most non-objectionable, most middle-of-the-road way, how will your story stand out?

I was told early on in my career to shy away from “controversial” subject matter. Like, for instance, having characters who weren’t straight, white, and predominantly male. I was given a very long lecture on this by someone I trust, someone with a lot of experience in the industry.

All I can tell you is–my two most successful characters were a lesbian state trooper and a Muslim schoolgirl from Somalia.

Whoever tells you to keep the politics out of writing is trying to stop you from using your voice. Don’t let them.

Bad Advice: Single Biome Worlds

It’s one of the great cliche responses to science fiction. “Earth has dozens of different biomes, but every planet in sci fi is just one thing, either it’s all desert or all frozen or…”

It’s easy to see why this bothers so many people watching science fiction movies. It’s very true that Earth has a wide range of climates and terrain, from snowswept mountains to dense, fetid swamps to arctic deserts and mist forests. When a planet in a work of science fiction is homogeneous from pole to pole, it feels like the creators are taking a shortcut. They’re being lazy.

But there are very good reasons why we keep seeing single-biome worlds in fiction. For one thing–as shortcuts go, it’s a great one. If you have multiple planets to depict, as in Star Wars, it allows you to instantly set them off from each other. You know by simple lighting cues and color palettes if a scene is set on Tattooine or Dagobah or Hoth. You don’t need to keep putting titles on the screen telling us where we are.

Furthermore it allows you to develop a landscape even if the characters move from place to place on the same planet. A consistent setting can grow and develop depth, whereas you just don’t have room to describe fifty different biomes in the same book, say.

This concern over single biome worlds didn’t start with Star Wars. It was old even when Dune was at its heyday. Arrakis is desert from pole to pole. It’s literally called the “Desert Planet”. This makes it the butt of one of the oldest tropes in sf criticism. Yet Herbert wasn’t trying to create a lushly diverse world in Dune. He was specifically trying to create a world which appears to be empty and hostile to life. What J.G. Ballard would call “psychic zero”–the same desolate landscape that is the setting for most of the Bible, a place where his zensunni warriors could test themselves both physically and spiritually. He also wanted to show the life cycle of the sandworms, which is so complex they may be the only living things on Arrakis, pre the arrival of humans. It’s funny that Dune, which is often called the first ecological science fiction novel, started this trend of worrying so much about biological diversity.

Looking outside the science fiction world, we can find a pretty solid defense of the single-biome planet as well–we need only look at the actual universe we live in. While Earth is home to multiple habitats and giant variations in its weather patterns, it turns out that it’s the exception, not the rule.

Wherever we look in our own solar system, we find nothing but single-biome worlds. Mars is cold, dry, and dusty. The polar caps are slightly different, but only slightly. Mercury is even more homogeneous, with maybe a few patches of water ice in craters at its poles–otherwise it’s nothing but sunblasted rock. Venus is shrouded in such a dense atmosphere that its entire surface is just molten rock and maybe liquid metals.

Beyond the orbit of Mars, diversity in planetary surfaces drops off considerably. The four giant planets are nothing but unitary weather patterns. Their moons are almost universally made of ice and rock in equal measure. Titan has methane lakes and deserts of electric sands, but again, it sticks out for its incredible wealth of biomes (two, maybe three). Beyond Neptune, there is nothing but an endless succession of Hoths. Worse than Hoths, because they lack the atmosphere to even have variable weather.

The criticism that worlds in science fiction are too samey, too much of a piece, is perfectly legitimate when we’re talking about planets exactly like Earth–planets with incredible genetic diversity, planets where life has sculpted the environment into biomes that favor individual species’ reproductive success. But please, when you’re creating worlds for your own sf stories, don’t feel obliged to throw rain forests onto your alpine planet. You don’t need them, and despite what anyone says, they aren’t all that realistic anyway.