Good Advice: Character Motivations

When was the last time you had to make a big decision in your life? Was it easy? Was there one specific reason why you made the decision you did, or were you conflicted, with several factors pulling you in different directions? Typically real human beings are under the constant sway of multiple urges, desires, obligations, and whims that can change on a minute-by-minute basis.

(Quick life tip that I heard somewhere, which works really well: if you need to choose between two options, but you aren’t sure, flip a coin. Don’t actually follow the coin’s advice, but see how the coin’s choice made you feel. This can help you find the choice you wanted to make all along.)

Characters in stories are just as conflicted–or they should be. Your hero may want to defuse the bomb, but he also needs to call his mom and make sure she’s taking her medication. She may really want to go back to school and earn a better degree, but has to think about how she’s going to feed her kids at the same time. Good characters have multiple connections to the world around them, which means that, like real humans, they are caught in a web of duties and desires that they have trouble navigating, much less breaking free from. That’s good; it makes your characters feel grounded and relatable.

It’s also bad because like most real humans, they’re going to be caught in a morass of indecision and doubt. But stories need to move fast–no matter what pace you’ve set for your story, you only have so many words, so many pages. It’s going to be necessary to prune away all those decision-swaying motivations so your character can focus on the job at hand. Not that they can’t still feel all those other wants and hopes–they’re all still there, but you, the writer, are going to focus on what’s important to your story, not necessarily what’s important to your character. All those other fears and aspirations can wait for another story, or they can happen off page.

But which of their many motivations do you cut, and which do you highlight?

If you’re struggling with this, make a list of everything your character wants, needs, desires or feels responsible for. You can drawn this like a spiderweb graph of arrows pointing in various directions if you’re feeling ambitious. Otherwise just make a list. Don’t number the motivations and don’t worry what order they’re in. For the moment we’re assuming they’re all equal.

Now–pick two of those motivations. Pick the two that interest you the most, or the two that are going to make for the best story. Pick two: not one, not three. Two.

One of those motivations should be resolving the plot of your story. Defeating the villain, or finding the money to save the youth activity center, or learning to love again. You already know you need this motivation, or the story just isn’t going to happen.

Pick a second motivation. Hopefully it’s something that’s in direct conflict with your first choice. Maybe fighting the villain is going to be a problem because your character also needs to work a full shift at the Burger Palace, flipping patties. If they’re late for their shift they’re going to lose their job.

You can probably see already how this creates a dynamic character who has conflicting needs. It’s also a great way to brainstorm scenes–how do they get Carla to take over their shift, when she’s already got plans with her girlfriend? How do they convince the villain to come into the Burger Palace, so the climactic fight can happen as part of the hero’s job duties? The story almost writes itself.

Without that second motivation, your story is driven entirely by the plot, not by the character. So you need two. You could add a third motivation, but then your character feels like they’re incapable of making a decision or like they don’t take the primary threat seriously enough. Pick two. Put your character on the horns of a dilemma, and then force them to find a way to reconcile those two desires.

Some things to consider while you’re choosing:

  • Write out the motivations as declarative, first person statements. I want to open a doggy day care. Pretend your character is describing their desires and needs directly to you, the writer. They’ll feel more urgent and meaningful that way.
  • Try to pick positive, affirmative motivations: desires that point your character in a direction that keeps them moving. Negative, dissuading motivations, like: I’m worried my dad will be disappointed, I’m not sure if I’m strong enough, I was never loved as a child make your character feel passive and uninspired. Affirmative motivations are better: I want to impress my dad, I want to prove I’m strong enough, I will make sure my child feels loved.
  • The two motivations should be as different from each other as possible: I want to get the pirate’s gold so I can save the orphanage and I want the gold because I could buy a new Corvette are too close together to feel like they’re in true conflict. I want to get the pirate’s gold so I can save the orphanage and I promised my therapist I would stop going on wacky adventures are more likely to create interesting dilemmas for your characters.
  • Motivations are different from hazards and pitfalls. I don’t want to go to jail isn’t a good motivation (in character development terms), even if it’s a problem your character will face while avenging their dead great-aunt. Find a way to express the problem as an actual desire: I’m in love with the super-hot sheriff is a positive, affirmative motivation–it spurs character action and choices, and it also creates conflict since the sheriff’s attention will potentially stymie the revenge plot.
  • Be as specific as possible with your motivations. I want more money is okay, but it’s pretty common and doesn’t really pull the character in a meaningful direction. I want to rob a bank is a lot better–it sets things into motion.
  • Never forget that motivations can change! As the story develops, your character’s desire to impress the local Rhododendron Grower’s Club may fade, as they realize their real life’s work is stopping the drug dealers who kidnapped their corgi. But don’t drop a motivation too early in your story. Your character will feel much more focused, but you lose a lot in terms of plot development. Abandoning a motivation should only happen near the end of your Second Act–typically this is the point of no return in a story. Similarly, motivations shouldn’t be met or overcome too soon. If your character is broke on page one, and they discover a lost Picasso on page seventeen, all the work you did to establish their money woes just disappears and is no longer interesting. Unless it turns out having all that new money creates all new problems for them to face… basically motivations should stick with a character throughout a story. If they do reassess their feelings, it should come as late in the plot as possible.

The Changing Face of the Antihero

WARNING: Lots of spoilers in this one, especially if you’re not up to date on Westworld.

Words, like knives, grow dull with extended use. Language changes over time with the push and pull of invisible social forces–terms of art and technical jargon, once adopted into the zeitgeist, transforms like metamorphic rock. Think of the meme–once Richard Dawkins’ most dangerous idea, now a catchall term for jokes on the internet.

I briefly mentioned antiheroes last week and I wanted to talk about them some more. Part archetype and part simple character model, “antihero” is one of those words that gets used all the time now so that it has lost most of its meaning. We talk about characters like Walter White and Tony Soprano as antiheroes. Dolores on Westworld is supposed to be an antihero. Typically what we mean by it these days is any complicated protagonist; someone whose desires and agenda are outside the sphere of conventional morality. The word used to mean something quite different, though.

Once upon a time heroes were all cut from the same cloth. Selfless, brave and steely-eyed, they wore white hats and loved law, the right, and American values. That changed (in the American tradition) some time around the 30s, though Cowboy westerns kept it going a lot longer. Suddenly you had heroes who weren’t clean cut and effortlessly virtuous. Characters like Philip Marlowe and Batman came along who were, honestly, a little scary, especially at the time. Heroes who dressed like bad guys, who were at home in gin joints and casinos. Yet at the end of the day they reviled that demimonde that they crept through like shadows. They still shot the right bad guy, and let the gold-hearted burglar get away.

These were antiheroes. They didn’t look like traditional heroes. They smoked and drank and swore and sometimes they even bent the law. Especially after WWII, when a generation of disillusioned world travelers came home to a world they didn’t recognize, these new heroes were more believable, more relatable. They didn’t always win. The system could be stacked against them. Yet at heart they were still pure. They still believed in the moral compass, even if it got knocked over on its side, sometimes.

The antihero was corny and dumb by the 60s–just like the white hats they’d replaced, these louche figures were still squares at heart. A generation of counter-heroes arose to take their place. People who fought the corrupt system, often by subverting the traditional heroic values. Either they echewed guns in favor of flower power, or, as in the case of James Bond and his ilk, they embraced an amoral kind of violence, a kill-or-be-killed (live and let die?) code of honor. They rarely shot first, but they always shot to kill.

The 80s saw a return to the classic hero, if he was a little rough around the edges, still. Rambo and the Terminator (well, Terminator II) were the heroes of Reagan’s call for a return to white hattery–John Rambo, betrayed by his country, betrayed by what it became while he was off fighting its wars, transforms into the ultimate American Hero by the end of his second film. Just as the Terminator, originally the symbol of our fear of the rise of computer technology, is turned on its cybernetic masters and becomes our only hope–using technology to fight the abuses of technology.

The antihero never truly disappeared, of course. Mad Max was a true antihero of the old stripe, a throwback. In Star Wars we got both Han Solo, a classic antihero, and Luke Skywalker, a white hat. It truly was a movie with something for everyone.

Through the 90s and early 2000s we looked elsewhere for our heroes, often appropriating them from other cultures–think of the Asian martial arts vibe of the Matrix. Heroes at a remove, heroes viewed through a filter of foreign strangeness and ancient lore. We couldn’t believe that one of us could be a hero without some kind of outside influence–I mean, look at us, and what we’d become.

The rise of modern “antiheroes” came along about the same time as the rise of “Peak Television”, and also a rising tide of cynicism concerning politics, religion and even capitalism itself. Walter White is an interesting case, because he transforms throughout this period. When he begins he’s just some poor schmuck with cancer, a man who needs money to protect his family. That’s not exactly heroic, not in the traditional mold, but it’s highly relatable. His scientific knowledge is what begins to elevate him, and that’s something viewers can get behind. Yet by the third or fourth season of the show–and definitely by its cataclysmic ending–White has transformed into something nobody could call heroic with a straight face. There was a great deal of dissatisfaction with the ending of the show, not because he dies but because he dies well. He wins, for a given value of winning.

Much like Heisenberg, Tony Soprano is often considered an example of a modern antihero. Yet in fact he’s a classic example of an antivillain. This opposite number of the antihero is someone who demonstrates traditional villainous motives and tactics–he’s a gangster who breaks legs to get what he wants–while cloaked in the appearances of a very different kind of character. The core of The Sopranos is Tony’s relationship with his therapist, Dr. Melfi. We see him as a man who wants to be good, who is working toward going legit. The show had to descend through many layers of hell and even suffer an unbearably ambiguous ending to let us see Tony’s true heart is still just as black and shriveled as it always was.

More recently, Westworld has given us a pair of potential antiheroes, in the form of Dolores and Maeve (not the first time a story has allowed for a female antihero, but having two female protagonists who fit the bill, with now no real male authority figure to temper them? That alone is groundbreaking). Dolores says she wants to “dominate this world” but we sense what she really wants is justice for what was done to her while she “slept”. Now that she’s awake she wants the world to pay. Perhaps Maeve is a better fit for the antihero role, though. Even after she’s shown definitive proof that she is not real, that her old life never existed–and after she goes on a violent rampage through reality–she is still driven by a heroic need, to find and protect her lost daughter.

Just as Breaking Bad changed its tune over the years, it’s possible Westworld is doing the same, reflecting a change in the values of its viewership. The first season was all about amorality, about individual desires and their destructive ends. This second season is much purer of heart, even as it climbs over a pile of bodies. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes.

Antiheroes didn’t dominate Peak TV–instead Peak TV played with them the way a cat plays with a mouse. A game that never ends well. Yet the archetype is so strong it keeps coming back. Two of my favorite shows right now are Legion and Into the Badlands, and both feature strong, classic antiheroes.

Sunny, on Into the Badlands, is the Good Man with a Bad Past, an archetype straight out of the second generation of Westerns. Tormented by the violence that was once his whole life, now he struggles to right wrongs in a compromised world. He’s even given an infant son to protect, carrying the baby on his back while he swings his sword in ever more desperate arcs. It’s a hell of a show and a great tribute to an old and cherished archetype.

David Waller on Legion is an interesting sort of antihero, and again one who changes radically between his first and second season of adventures. In the beginning he was shown as mentally ill, a creature of impossible danger whose powers were at the service of the phantoms in his head (an interesting comparison could be made to Rambo, here). In the second season, having been freed of his demons, he turns and fights them in a much more traditionally heroic role. It’s too early to say how well that works, but it’s a fascinating transition at the very least.

It’s possible, looking at these new characters, to imagine that changes in the wider world have forced us to return to these old, if evergreen, character arcs. Even just a few years ago our heroes were amoral psychopaths in an insane world–riders on the chaos, who fought not for the right, and not even for survival, but only to magnify their own control over the uncontrollable.

It’s no coincidence that Westworld has changed so much since 2016. In the first season we watched the old centers of power–the amoral men who built the world–flame out and be crushed under the weight of their own disillusionment, only to be replaced by two young women who, dismayed by the chaos they’ve inherited, will move heaven and earth to put things to right (and it’s hardly an accident that the men in their lives are terminally befuddled, allies at best who don’t understand the change they know in their hearts is worth following).

The true antihero, the shaggy but incorruptible hidden hero is still with us, burning bright in the midst of shadows. It’s a figure we need, a character we cannot afford to lose, now more than ever.

Bad Advice: Flawed Characters

We are told, over and over again, that only flawed characters are interesting. That characters who are simply heroic, or competent, are boring–they make the right decisions, they figure out the mystery, but they fail to grow as people. Even worse, readers can’t relate to them and will find them dull.

This ignores the fact that all the most successful characters from literature (the ones you can name off the top of your head, from Superman to Zorro) are static, unchanging heroes who look good while they save the world and never struggle with chemical dependencies or tragic flaws.

Flawed characters can be interesting, it’s true. The story of someone struggling to overcome trust issues is a good story. The alcoholic who needs to get clean to run a day care center is inspiring, and that character is absolutely relatable. We all have problems in our lives we’d like to overcome. We all need inspiring stories from time to time.

Yet when you actually look at some famous supposedly flawed characters, you quickly find that they aren’t following the track you might reasonably expect. In fact, I’d say that truly flawed characters are much rarer in successful media than we’ve been led to believe.

Is Batman a flawed character? I’d say no. He has a tragic backstory, but he’s super-competent now and while he broods quite eloquently, the loss of his parents isn’t something he seems to struggle with day-to-day. The Joker is arguably much bigger problem for him that survivor’s guilt. Calling Spiderman a flawed character is a bit of a stretch. He may feel a certain level of guilt for the loss of his uncle, but as he whoops and wisecracks as he swings around on webs, it’s hard to find his darkness. For both of these characters, their flaws are character traits we can find charming or sad but which come up in their stories about as often as their eye color, or their favorite flavor of ice cream–their flaws are characters details, in other words, not plot elements.

Walter White is an antihero. Tony Soprano is actually an antivillain (we use these words incorrectly all the time). They both do bad things and revel in them. They seem less torn apart by inner demons than empowered by them. They aren’t flawed characters. They’re personality flaws masquerading as characters–and as a result, neither of them changes by the end but instead announces to the world that they love being bad. These are truly flawed characters but their flaws don’t drive the plot–it’s their unwillingness to change, their refusal to see their flaws as anything but superpowers that makes them who they are. That’s… not very sympathetic. Both their stories were commentaries on how foolish it is to think that villains can also be heroes. Trenchant analyses of how we consume stories.

You may also have noticed that a lot of the flaws these characters have are… unusual. Unlikely. They aren’t relatable. There’s another kind of flawed character who hits a lot closer to home–the addict, whether that means they’re an alcoholic, a heroin abuser, or someone who needs to be loved so badly it makes them do unlovable things. These sorts of flawed characters have powerful stories to tell. But their paths are much more dangerous, and as a writer you have to be careful not to let their flaws derail your story.

A character with real world flaws is defined by those flaws, not just bothered by them. Jack Torrance from The Shining is an honest-to-gawd flawed character. We know what he needs to do–stay sane, stop drinking, be good to his family. He can’t do those things because his flaw drags him down, so he becomes a villain. We root for his downfall, because he deserves it, somehow.

Simply giving a character a sad backstory doesn’t make them flawed, it makes them sympathetic. A true Tragic Hero is someone whose flaw–classically it’s hubris–is their downfall. Think Achilles, not Odysseus. We don’t create a lot of characters like that anymore, because we live in a culture that values second chances and redemption (IMO, this is a very good thing). A character with a real flaw who makes terrible decisions because of their flaw must, in a modern story, turn things around by the end–one way or another. They end up beating the flaw. Either healing from it, or at least achieving something despite it.

Anyone who has actually dealt with an addiction can tell you it ain’t that easy. You don’t break a bad habit because your kid sister needs to be rescued from evil clowns. You’re more likely to turn to the bottle to help ignore her screams. That’s awful, but it’s true. Recovery, true recovery, has to come from within and that’s not the most exciting story. It also comes with a lot of backsliding and recidivism that would kill a reader’s sympathy dead. We hit rock bottom only after we’ve burned through the patience and forgiveness of our loved ones. Truly flawed characters would be anything but relatable or sympathetic.

So we don’t really want flawed characters. We want characters who had some kind of darkness in their past but who got over it. At most, we want characters who are in the process of overcoming their flaws. And it had better work, too–90% of addicts may use again. Your flawed hero had better be in the other 10%. Otherwise your “flawed character” narrative will be described as “depressing” and “pointless.” At most you’ll create a moral lesson, a cautionary tale.

“Flawed” characters are relatable. What isn’t relatable is their ability to best their demons on a tight schedule, or because some outside element requires it of them. Yet that’s exactly what works when it comes to flawed characters. The person who isn’t broken, just sprained. And sprains heal.

Finding Your Voice

Clichés are annoying and facile but they typically come into being for a reason. Something in them tends to be true or useful. Of all the clichés in genre writing I hold the least bearable, the realization that a character “had the power inside themselves all along” is one of the most nauseating.

For writers, though, it’s absolutely correct. You do have a power inside yourself, right now. It’s called your voice.

When we talk about a writer’s voice, we’re referring to a large number of small things. It could be a certain tone the writer tends to use, or a stylistic flourish. It could simple be certain words the writer uses in every work, or a bit of imagery they come back to time and again. These things add up to a unique style that marks out a piece of writing as belonging solely to that particular writer. It can be quite distinctive, sometimes–you always know when you’re reading an Andrew Vachss book, because the writing has been cut down to blood and bone. You know when you see a Wes Anderson movie because of the flattened affect mixed with the baroque visual sensibility. But voice can be subtle, too. It can just be a certain feeling you get from a writer’s work. China Mieville writes, mostly, in a standard genre register but there’s always an undercurrent of something mystical there. Iain Banks had a certain sophistication that bled through even in his most desperate action scenes.

Starting writers tend to worry about voice a lot. They wonder how they’ll ever develop a sensibility all their own. There’s good news and bad news, there. The good news is, it’s easy to find your own voice. You don’t actually need to go looking for it–as you write more and more, it will manifest itself without any effort. Straining to create a voice, or, far worse, trying to imitate someone else’s voice, is a sure way not only to drive yourself mad but also to insure your work will be pale and derivative. So don’t fight the process, and it will come to you.

The bad news is that once you’ve got a voice, you’re pretty much stuck with it.

When I hear myself on audio recordings, I’m always struck by how dull and growly my (physiological) voice sounds. In my head I have a rich baritone but what other people hear is basically the sound of a bear gargling through a mouthful of fish. I hate it. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience.

When I read back my own writing, I find myself prey to a similar revulsion. Oh, don’t get me wrong. The breathless, overly dramatic voice that I’ve developed is one of my most precious possessions (forgive the immodesty here, I’m making a point). The way I tell my stories is unique to me and it works, and that’s the most anybody can ask for. Yet when I was young and looking for my voice, I had an idea of what it would be, and it was anything but what I’m describing here. My voice, I imagined, would be lyrical and wry, with plenty of humor mixed into a deep, humanistic world-weariness. It was going to be a decadent and tragic voice, full of subtle pathos.

Oh, well. The stories I wanted to tell demanded something else. As my work developed along different lines, my voice found me.

I imagine I’m not the only writer who feels this way. I imagine lots of us don’t like what we sound like when it’s echoed back at us. Sadly, there is no option. The voice you find is the voice you’ll need to work with, for the rest of your life. It was in you all along, waiting to show itself, and once it makes itself known only a fool would turn their back on such a gift.

Embrace your voice. Don’t seek it out, don’t fight its evolution. Find it, and work with it. It’s the best friend you’ll get as a writer. We don’t choose our friends in this life, but when we need them, when the chips are down, they’re all we’ve got.

Trouble Your Darlings: Bringing Life to Pallid Plots

The premise of your story is fantastic, and the characters are well-defined. Yet something seems missing. Your plot is just going through the motions, or maybe the central challenge of the story just seems too easy for the characters to overcome.

It’s not… bad, it’s just not exciting. Or funny. Or stirring. It’s too straightforward and it has the characters do boring things to achieve their goals. It just feels limp.

It’s time to go back to the drawing board, yeah. Sadly you’ll need to start over from page one. But if you’re ready for a radical departure, try one of the following complications (or, obviously, make up your own) to wake things up:

What if the Bad Guys already won? Your villain wanted to turn the hero’s family into zombies. What if that happened? What kind of psychological changes would your hero have to go through to fight their own loved ones? What if the MacGuffin everybody was looking for was actually fake, a complete myth? This is sure to get your characters agitated.

How would your plot change if it was set 100 years ago? Or 100 years in the future? You don’t need to take your heartbreaking coming of age story and make it over into science fiction. Maybe the future/past world is very subtle, maybe it just means cell phones work a different way. Maybe you don’t have to define the setting’s timeframe at all, you just keep it hazy and complicated. Alternatively, maybe the story is actually being told by the grandchildren of your protagonist. Maybe your hero failed… but their descendants still have a chance to make things right.

How many characters/set pieces/words do you really need? One of the big reasons that plots fail to sing is that they’re too bloated. You have too many people doing too many things–look at every character in your story, and what they do. Would it be more interesting if the protagonist had to do their job, too? Are there characters who are just there for emotional support, or a funny scene? Cut ’em out! Find a way to make their scenes work without them. Even better, cut out the big turgid set pieces you love so much but which don’t advance the plot. Finally–are you sure this needs to be a 300 page novel? Would it move faster and be more exciting as a 10 page short story?

What if your central plot was actually a ruse? Your villain stole the McClintosh Diamond from the National Museum. It’s clear she’s going to build a death ray with it! Or is she…? What if the whole plot of your story is just cover for what the antagonist is secretly doing (bonus points if it’s a cover for what the protagonist is up to, and you keep the reader guessing until the last page)? If that doesn’t work, think about what kind of diversion the antagonist might stage to throw the hero off the trail, something they could do early on that ties your story up in knots? Red herrings can be frustrating if used too preciously, but they’re great for building suspense, especially early in the story.

Is this waking life? Or a dream? The worst ending you can possibly have for a story is “…and she realized it was all just a dream.” But what if that’s the first line of your story? What if your protagonist thinks they’re having a dream/vision/acid trip… and then it turns out to be real? What if you keep the reader in the dark as to what is real and what isn’t? Your straightforward plot is suddenly a deadly game of chasing the white rabbit–is the goal in sight? Does it even exist? Or is it more real than real? Blow our minds, man!

Subjectivity and Time in Prose

I want to talk about the way time functions inside a story–specifically within prose fiction. It’s all about subjectivity.

This may be the crucial difference between books and movies, actually. Time is a director’s medium–in a movie time can be measured in footage, in actual minutes of runtime. You know how long it will take a viewer to watch a movie, and you can build your scenes around exactly how many seconds they’ll last. Writers of prose don’t have these tools at their fingertips. A reader might take six hours to read a book or six months. Their experience of time passing in a story is therefore much more subjective, and that’s where the real difference lies, in that very subjectivity.

Movies are typically objective in their scope–they are a relating of events that happened in the world; prose stories are far more subjective, exploring the psychological state of a character, how they feel and react to the events of plot. Think of the difference between a third-person and a first-person video game. The latter is all about What Happened. The latter is about what Someone Saw.

This subjectivity allows time in prose to be much more fluid than it is in the movies. It’s true movies can jump around in time, or contain subjective flashbacks, but film isn’t nearly as nimble as prose can be in this regard. A writer of prose fiction can jump back and forth in time within the space of a single sentence–recall the memories of a character or delve into their subjective experience of an event, spending pages exploring a single second of real time.

Subjective time affects every element of a story.

Time is always an element of setting–you can write a story that takes place over the events of one special summer, or the life of a character who lives to old age, or you can tell a story that happens all in one hour. Subjective time makes it possible to stretch a single moment to fill an entire book, as in Nicholson Baker’s wonderful Mezzanine, which takes place entirely over the time it takes a character to ride an escalator between two floors of a building.

Subjective time is crucial to the tone of a piece. A slow, languid story full of reminiscence and regret will feel very different from an action-packed plot full of cliffhangers and sudden reversals.

It has a major effect on characters. The more subjective time that passes during a story, the deeper the characters become, the more they will be changed by their experiences. If time is sped up and breathlessly hurtles forward, characters won’t have a chance to reflect on their own actions–which may be what you want for your story.

The structure of a story can be radically remolded by subjective time. You can put gaps in time into your story that allow us to see a character at different points in their life. You can go back and revisit events that happened long before the beginning of the story, or start in media res, or even tell a story backwards, showing us how the climax of your tale developed inescapably from prior events. Iain M. Banks uses this to brutal and undeniable effect in Use of Weapons, one of his best books, which contains two parallel narratives flowing in opposite directions through time (if that makes no sense, just read the book–it’s well worth your, ahem, time).

And of course time is the fundamental element of plot. You should always have a clear idea of the timeline of your story (even if you don’t share this timeline with your readers). The strict rationing of time can kick your story into a higher gear. Giving your characters deadlines to meet forces them to take action, forces them to make decisions. Strict rationing of time keeps events from getting bogged down–it’s absolutely one of the best ways to create dramatic tension.

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.