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-   -   Obtaining Reader Permission To Write The Improbable (http://forums.srellim.org/showthread.php?t=6878)

D. M. Domini Aug 28 2009 10:44 PM

Obtaining Reader Permission To Write The Improbable
I've found that recently I have been writing about the power of reader trust. (And yes, those are multiple links to places here and on livejournal where I've found myself discussing this in one form or another, including Kate Elliott's blog).

Reader trust is...important. Obscenely important. The more trust you can obtain from a reader, the more "permission" you have as an author to write about improbable, crazy, "high-risk" ideas. The ideas that can be Really Cool in the right hands.

I'm going to be spoiling some books and using them as examples, so if spoilers bug you, don't read on.

I have seen Jim Butcher pull off crazy stunts like having his main character--in an urban fantasy no less--necromantically raise a dinosaur from the dead and ride it down the streets of Chicago. And, by and large, this is in one of the best-loved books of the Dresden Files series. (Dead Beat.)

Do you have any idea how much reader goodwill you have to have to get a reader to sit up and cheer while your characters ride DINOS around the streets of Chicago? In an urban fantasy?

If you say it flat out--and say it with me--"Yeah, my character, this wizard, he's going to, like, go to the Field Museum and raise a dinosaur from the dead, and, like, ride it to where the bad guys are getting down, and like, he'll kick their asses with it."

It sounds like a twelve year old boy's wet dream after chugging too many mountain dews while staying up way too late after his bedtime.

That is a high-risk idea.

Here's another high-risk idea..."Yeah, my main character, a clairvoyant descended from the Oracle meets up with Merlin--except she doesn't know it's him cuz he's hundreds of years old and should be dead already--and they don't like each other so they fight while hopping through time and he's like this modern grumpy geek guy, except he's kind of hot and they have this subtext-y sexual awareness about one another and we later find out he's part incubus but can't have relations with a girl because it'll kill her..."

Another high-risk idea, yes? Yes. The writer (not Jim Butcher, but Karen Chance) who wrote this one doesn't quite pull it off, however, and the results are predictable. (Why the hell does Merlin want a spoiled modern girl? Why is his world bending around her? Oh, because the author says so?) Why can Jim Butcher have reanimated dinosaurs being ridden into battle, but Karen Chance has a harder time with sexy, broody, grumpy half-incubus Merlins still being alive and kicking?

Reader trust. Reader trust, readertrustreadertrustreadertrust.

You must have it. You must get people to suspend their disbelief. You need readers to say, "Ok, you have me hooked, I'll swallow this because from what I've already seen I think you can pull it off. Now show me what you've got."

So...how do you do it? How do you get readers to believe in you? What do you do to put the trust into play, what foundations do you build before you start to erect the story? Is it planning? Is it luck? Skill? How detailed about it do you have to be? What techniques do you use to build reader trust?

Multi-Facets Aug 29 2009 12:47 AM

Re: Obtaining Reader Permission To Write The Improbable
You're one of the best writers in the McCaffrey fandom -and on ff.n- and you have to ask? When you write, you do it. So what's the process you use? ^n_n^

AnnMarie Aug 29 2009 02:29 PM

Re: Obtaining Reader Permission To Write The Improbable
I think you have to start with logical reasons why something would work. It doesn't have to be logical by everyday standards, just logical in the context of the story. (Which is where Chance lost it...she really doesn't give us any logical idea why Merlin would fall for Miss Modern)

D. M. Domini Aug 29 2009 05:25 PM

Re: Obtaining Reader Permission To Write The Improbable
Multi-Facets - Thank you for the vote of confidence. :) That being said, it's difficult...not to mention enormously egotistical...to have a conversation with ones' self. Which is why I'm hoping a bunch of others will hop in with their own theories. ;)

AnnMarie - have you read Karen Chance, or are you going forward with the fly-by-night synopsis I plopped down above? (Just curious.) Chance does many things right--I like her better than several other offerings in the Urban Fantasy genre, but she's not in the same league as Jim Butcher, mostly because she goes for the glam and the glitter too much, and forgets the grounding in reality.


I often see a lot of people say things need to be in a logical order. I'm not refuting that, but at the same time when you create internal world-logic, the author is still making things up out of (almost) whole cloth. So I'm going to skip over discussing that technique for the moment..

I'm going to continue to use the example of urban fantasy here, because it's the subgenre I keep bashing my head against most recently, so I've thought about it a lot.

I've noticed, for me, the urban fantasies where the authors exhaust their trust points with me usually have a poor link between the magic world and the police and government of the country the urban fantasy is operating in. In effect, the police and military and government are straw men, windmills to tilt at and easily defeated because they're cardboard cutouts and not real. They are not trusted by the main characters, nor particularly feared by the main characters, and they don't have teeth. Suddenly, the main character with these extraordinary powers has nothing to limit that power.

In these urban fantasies, you have death, you have fights, you have wounded--all things that any police force would get involved in because it's their job. But they're never involved, characters never have to face the consequences, not in a way that rings true in a real urban, modern world.

In the real world--if you kept coming up in databases as being involved in crimes that had no solid evidence...except you're always at the scene of the crime? Yeah, the police aren't dummies. They're going to be suspicious of you. They might think you're a friggin' genius to keep getting away with whatever criminal activity you're up to, but they'll know you're dirty and they might start breaking the rules just to take you down. They may try to infiltrate your social groups--look at the Mafia, and how they were busted. Even without legally allowed evidence, if you're involved in strange, violent things of any stripe you're going to get some sort of rep. Just because you can't use gut feelings and instincts and social skills to use in a court of law doesn't mean a policeman will automatically ignore those feelings...they'll just try to set out to prove them.

Jim Butcher. He handles this. From book one, Harry had to deal with the police, to the point that a character that becomes an ally later in the books handcuffs him early on. He has to handle variations within the police--some who believe him, some who think he's a kook, some who have seen odd things around him and aren't quite sure what to think about it, but now they're kind of wary. Harry has to deal with the magical police force too, who are competent and can take Harry down a peg. (Or, you know, just execute him.) Eventually Harry gathers up the experience, rep, and gravitas to sort of be understood as being a police force in himself (he also becomes a policeman for the magical folks in his own right), so whatever happens in the stories, it has the connection to the real world government and military forces...he works alongside of them, not hidden or independant of them. The author doesn't just ignore this aspect of the real world. It's one of the things that makes the books stronger.

Let's jump over to Batman. The movies Batman Begins and The Dark Knight both involve the police too, much in the same way. Jim Gordon has his own trials and story line. Yeah, the Gothom police are corrupted and having lots of internal troubles, but even so they're not totally out of the picture. Jim Gordon is an ally of Batman. It ends up working...Batman works with the police, and they work with him. Sometimes conflicts arise where they don't trust each other, and when that happens Batman's life gets more hairy.

Let's jump over to Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series. Again, police are involved (in the early books at least). Anita is a part (or consults, forgot which) with the Spook Squad, the governmental police force dedicated to magical oddities. She interacts with these people, sometimes helping, sometimes hiding stuff from them. Anita has (or, had at least...who knows what LKH has done with the latest books) a real-world grounding because if she goes off the deep end, the Spook Squad are the folks who will come after her.

So. One of the things that can really, really make a difference in if a reader trusts an author is how much a reader believes there are consequences for the main characters. For Urban Fantasy specifically, this is making the government and the police and the military have some sort of realistic involvement. Even if it's just one, lone solitary policeman or woman knowing the real thing, and doing their small part in turning cogs to help your main character who has more resources (typically) against the magical threats that are being threatening. Even that thread will help. But having people and agencies turning blind eyes because it makes it easier for you to write the rest of your book without thinking about that stuff...will hurt you in the long run.

If a reader begins to get the idea that the actions of a main character have no consequences...that there aren't things shifting in the background of the world in response to whatever the main character is doing, then suddenly the Grand Things the main character can do are less impressive. They start to reek of Entitlement...you start to see the god in the machine, where the author is just pushing things around because they want to. The illusion is broken.

(I've screwed up here before--most recently, with my fanfic The Skyboom. Robinton and F'lon get away with a hell of a lot more than they should, even taking into account that all the people interacting with them have strong, emotional ties to either Robinton or F'lon or both. It's something I'll fix on a rewrite.)


Of course, once you identify the factors in your story world that can have real consequences against your main character, how do you present these factors so that your readers believe that these factors are actually threatening in some way?

In the book The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, the main character is an extremely talented and intelligent young man--so much so that he becomes a legend, and starts the story in hiding from his notoriety while working as an innkeeper. When the story goes back to the man's youth, he gets into an academy without paying tuition--or actually, with being *paid* to attend the academy rather than the typical reverse--by being an extreme smarty-pants during the entrance exams. He's one of the best they've seen.

BUT...he's an orphan. He's dirt poor. He has NO resources, no friends. All he has is his wits and his talent at music. In fact, when he runs into a noble music-lover the noble SEES that he has talent in music...but the man has already become the patron of several other artists, and he just can't squeeze another one in, because it would be unfair to the other artists and make them jealous (and rightfully so--how would you feel if you were tossed aside for some new stranger, when you're working so hard on your career and thought you just got a break? How would it feel for resources you could have used being divided and given to someone else?). Regardless of the fact that the main character of the book is almost undoubtedly a genius-level musician, he doesn't get a patron to help support him through Academy.

That's a real-world grounder right there--people SEEING your talent, but because of issues in their own lives, being unable to give your talent a break. (Trust me, I've come up against this one, and my oh my is it bitter!)

One of the other things that the main character comes up against is being poor...he gets into a personal rivalry with a rich snotty boy at the same academy. Of course, we want him to kick that rich boy's ass. And he does at first, by making the rich boy the butt of a popular poem. But in the real world it's not that easy and there's a reason people are afraid to anger those in authority...so in the story, the author made that rich boy buy up the inn the main character was working at to earn money, and fire and kick out the main character, so he's homeless and jobless. This scares the pants off of the other innkeepers in town, so they all refuse the main character a room/employment. They don't care if the main character is the second coming of Christ...they see their own livelihoods being threatened if they take the main character in, so they don't, and the main character is now trying to struggle through school while being poor, jobless, homeless, and orphaned. All he HAS is his keen wit and intellect going for him.

Rich boy wins that round. Reader really, REALLY empathizes with the main character now, because the rich boy who just kicked his ass is so petty that he makes another man homeless (and an extremely talented underdog one to boot) just to soothe his own wounded pride. How petty is that? Your pride is wounded, so you go so far as to take away basic necessities of living just to humble him on a matter of pride. This bit of grounding makes the reader root for the main character more than just about anything could...it builds a crazy amount of reader trust.

So you have a crazy-talented character. He gets into an academy on the strength of his wits. Then he gets overconfident, hurts a rich boy's pride with that same quick wit, and gets fired and made homeless again. The only person perhaps that could have "saved" him is already commited to others and is honorable enough to not want to screw them over, so the crazy-talented main character is forced to live the hardest route of all.

That's balancing right there. That's what we're talking about when we say balance improbable talents with realistic flaws. In the real world, nobody gives a flying F*** if you have talent. They won't go out of their way to help you. Well, some may, but those that do are the sort that help everyone, and their resources are stretched thin in the first place. To really get places, you need to stand on your own two feet, and build experience and rep. The only people who care about your talent are those who stand to profit by it. And they're in it for themselves, too.

Put things like that into a book, and the book will ring true. You'll build reader trust. And once you have that trust, THEN you can make your character do extraordinary things, and people will love it.

(Go read the book I was referencing if you haven't...The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. There's a reason why it's a debut novel that was released in hardcover and hit the bestseller lists, and there's a reason why he still has an active following despite the fact that he hasn't released the sequel yet for several years.)


So. There's two techniques I have spotted for making a world more believable, and thereby increasing reader trust.

Anareth Aug 29 2009 11:16 PM

Re: Obtaining Reader Permission To Write The Improbable

Originally Posted by AnnMarie (Post 149395)
I think you have to start with logical reasons why something would work. It doesn't have to be logical by everyday standards, just logical in the context of the story. (Which is where Chance lost it...she really doesn't give us any logical idea why Merlin would fall for Miss Modern)

Ignoring a whole lot of teeldeer here...just this. As long as something is INTERNALLY consistent and if anything blatantly stupid there's a fine degree of lampshade hanging (where the characters are aware that something is bizarre even by their settings' standards) I will generally go with it. I have issues with Twilight, for example, because the setting is allegedly the real world but the "normal" characters do not behave like real people (and the vampires are...improbably explained at best.) Meyer just kind of throws things out there and...it works that way 'cause it's her story and that's why, nyah. That's where she loses me. (Well, that and the grossly unappealing protagonist.)

It's context. If the characters are operating in what's basically "our" normal, everyday world and odd things happen, just have it make sense in context.

AnnMarie Aug 30 2009 04:16 PM

Re: Obtaining Reader Permission To Write The Improbable
D...I didn't get half way through the first chapter of the only Chance book I picked up...so it didn't actually leave the libarary with me.

Anareth....yup! ALl in the context!

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