Making Worlds That Make Sense

Earlier today I posted something at my own blog site about the political mess in Illinois.  In that post I said that the state’s governor, Rod Blagojevich, was so corrupt, so delusional, so inept, and so blinded by hubris, that if I were to write him into a book, my editor would tell me to tone him down.  Even his nickname, Blago, is too perfect, sounding more like a new villain in Gotham City than the governor of a large Rust Belt state.  There’s that old quote — I’ve heard it attributed to Tom Clancy — [paraphrasing]:  The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.

I’m in the early stages of developing a project right now; I’m writing the first book in a new series that I hope to sell in the spring.  And like all SF/Fantasy writers, I’m doing all I can to make my plot fit together seemlessly, to make my characters act in ways that are consistent with the background work I’ve done on them, to make my created world function logically.  And then I see Blago in the news; I see the world’s economy falling to pieces under the weight of decades of irrational decision making; I see families tearing themselves apart all around me; and I wonder why I bother.

Yes, novels have to make sense.  But isn’t that just a bit odd?  We live in an irrational, illogical, incomprehensible world.  But when we go to read fiction — and I’m as guilty of this as anyone — we expect the stories we read to make sense.  If the characters we encounter in a book behave in ways we can’t explain, that don’t seem “consistent”, we get mad at the author.  “This character wouldn’t do that!” we say.  “It makes no sense.  It violates everything we know about her!”  Never mind that our own Uncle Cy has just left his devoted wife of forty-two years and is now running a tattoo parlor in Santa Cruz with a woman named Spruce.  We cringe at logical inconsistencies in the created worlds we read about, but we think nothing of living in a world in which fools run nations and brilliant academicians are paid a pittance.

People often refer to genre fiction as “escapist,” a term I deeply resent.  It implies a certain whimsical shallowness that I think belittles the literature that our field actually produces.  But wouldn’t it be ironic if the escapism charge carried some shred of truth, only in precisely the opposite way?  Isn’t it possible that people turn to the carefully crafted works of fantasy and science fiction because they seek logic and rationality?   Could it be that the “real” world, rather than being too mundane, is actually too freakin’ crazy?

I really have no larger point to make here, no grand conclusion to give deeper meaning to what I’ve written thus far.  I read my local paper this morning, and tuned in briefly to CNN, and found myself thinking that the entire world is pretty much nuts.  And all I want to do now is go back to my new book, where things make at least a bit of sense.

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  1. 1. Sarah Goslee

    The real world is either too crazy, or not crazy in the ways we _like_. Thus, fiction.

    Though it seems that if we knew as much about real-life Uncle Cy as we would if he were a fictional character, we’d understand the tattoo parlor. In real life, we don’t know people.

    That may be another of fiction’s allures, actually.

  2. 2. David B. Coe

    Interesting point, Sarah. It’s not logic or rationality that we seek so much as the insight, the peek into the human psyche, that we get with fiction, but can never really have in the living world. Thanks.

    [By the way: Uncle Cy and Spruce don't actually exist. Their lives have been created to make my life seem more interesting than it actually is....]

  3. 3. Kelly McCullough

    I suspect that very irrationality in real life is part of why we really crave the rational in our fiction. We want the world to make sense and when it doesn’t we seek out a world that does.

    I personally like the term escapism because I like to think of what I do as a writer as mythmaking and providing a refuge for people who often desperately need one. I suspect some of that has to do with periods in my life where what I needed more than anything was exactly the means of escape that reading genre fiction provided me. For me escapist = sanity-saving and one of the most important service writers provide the world.

  4. 4. Misty

    David said, “Even his nickname, Blago, is too perfect, sounding more like a new villain in Gotham City than the governor of a large Rust Belt state.”

    Todd and I were just saying over breakfast that the whole thing feels like a Batman movie. :D

  5. 5. James Alan Gardner

    I agree with David’s point here. Fiction suffers under a set of constraints that I sometimes find unsettling. In science fiction, I’m particularly bothered by the “something has to go wrong” requirement.

    Here’s what I mean. Suppose I dream up a cool new piece of technology. I can’t write a story where the thing gets invented, it does what it’s supposed to, and people’s lives become better. Fiction doesn’t work unless something goes wrong. So I end up looking for a down-side, or a glitch, or a gotcha, and that’s what I write about. I can’t deliver the message, “You know, a lot of new technology works to everyone’s advantage.”

    Fiction is only good at going down certain paths. Real life has more scope and more surprises.

  6. 6. David B. Coe

    Kelly, you’re right about the word “escapist”. A lot depends on the assumptions behind the word, and whether it’s being used as a pejorative. I have encountered it as such — as a way for people to give voice to “the sneer” that we’ve discussed in the group. When it is used to denigrate and dismiss what we do as “not real” and therefore “not worthy of consideration”, I get mad. Using the term as you do brings a very different meaning, one that I would readily embrace.

    Misty, yeah: Blago has Batman written all over it!

    And James, yes! Precisely. There are things that fiction has to do, and I’m fine with that. I wouldn’t have gotten into this business if I wasn’t. But because of these constraints, fiction can be a poor mirror for reality. And yet in other ways, it’s remarkably effective in that role.

  7. 7. Adam Heine

    Actually, I think the things that make fiction “work,” do so because they mirror what we see in reality.

    Sarah’s comment is spot on; reality doesn’t make sense, but if we knew everything (as we basically do in fiction) it would. Or at least we think it would. One reason a lot of people read fiction is not to escape reality, but to make sense of it.

    To James’ comment, I think the reason fiction has to have conflict is because life has conflict. When has anything (technology, world leader, teen fad) ever made life better without glitches or strings attached? Fiction without conflict doesn’t click with us because it’s immediately obvious that it’s not real.

    On a side note, that same line of thinking says a lot about our expectations of climax and resolution as well…

  8. 8. Raethe

    Hi. I’m a random lurker who’s come to pretend that I actually know what I’m talking about.

    Actually, I saw this post and it looks remarkably like a debate I was having with an acquaintance over on another forum, so it seemed like I might as well comment…

    My point was basically that fiction isn’t reality, and is sometimes held to different standards than real life to maintain realism. I think reality in fiction comes down to being engaged with the story, because you can’t suspend your disbelief if you’re not engaged. So when we come across things that pull us out of the story, like apparent inconsistencies mentioned in the first post, we cry “unrealistic” – true or not – because we’re no longer engaged. It breaks our suspension of disbelief. And once that’s gone, well, of course it won’t seem real… it’s words on a page. That’s my take on it, anyway.

    - end opinion from random lurker

  9. 9. Leanne

    As I normally state in my intro to international relations class, I don’t need to make up examples – reality is ALWAYS stranger than fiction.

  10. 10. Kelly McCullough

    David, I guess I did some shorthanding there and probably cheated a bit. I’ve encountered “escapist” used in exactly the denigrating manner you mentioned any number of times, and because of that, any time I encounter it I try to shift the ground to the idea of refuge. It’s pretty much reflexive at this point. I do it both in an attempt to disempower the word as an attack on genre and to point out that escape is a powerful survival tool. Whether it shuts that particular argument down for that person in a more general way over the long run, I don’t know, but I do find that I almost never hear it from the same person twice.

  11. 11. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the clarification, Kelly. I think we’re coming at this matter from the same place.

    Raethe, thanks for the comment, and please feel free to lurk and comment any time! And Adam, thank you for commenting as well. I still maintain that fiction and reality are different, and that fiction has certain “rules” that have to be met for a story to work. Life isn’t neat. It doesn’t always follow recognizable story arcs. And sometimes human behavior isn’t rational. For a novel to work it has to be internal consistent. Characters need to develop in ways that make sense. That doesn’t mean they have to be predictable; it just means that when they’re not predictable, there has to be a satisfying reason.

  12. 12. Adam Heine

    You’re write. Life doesn’t follow recognizable story arcs. For some reason, though, we want it to. I think that points to something, some need, deep inside of us, but that’s a much bigger topic than this post perhaps.

    I guess I would say that the “rules” we have for fiction, we also apply to reality, but in reality we can’t yell at the author for “doing it wrong.”

  13. 13. Adam Heine

    Ugh, I keep doing that. I meant to say, “You’re right.”

    It’s gotta be some kind Freudian slip or something.

  14. 14. David B. Coe

    No, we can’t yell at the author. I do spend a fair amount of time shaking my fist at the cosmos, however. :)

    Thanks for the comments, Adam.

  15. 15. Daemonworks

    When you think about it, out species has made quite the hobby out of trying to force the universe in general, not to mention our fellow human beings, to actually make sense. The driving impulse behind religion, philosophy, science, psychology, etc. is, largely, the question “Why the hell did that just happen?!” People tend to get quite uncomfortable when things happen that they don’t understand. Fairly often if we can’t figure out why it happened, we’ll invent reasons, or accept the first explanation given to us by somebody who seems to know what they are talking about.

    It’s not too surprising that people want books to make sense, given how much effort we put into denying that real life is largely composed of nonsense.

  16. 16. David B. Coe

    Leanne, sorry I missed your comment earlier. Yes, I’m sure that there is no example you could imagine that would be stranger than things that have actually happened.

    Daemon, excellent point — you’re right, most himuan institutions and endeavors represent attempts to impose rationality and understandable patterns on a chaotic world.

  17. 17. bob charters

    The old proverb (how old is it? I don’t know): “Truth is stranger than fiction”, is probably a useful one for us writers of fiction to keep in mind. The point: don’t try to make your fiction stranger than some of the truth you hear!

    While the “truth”, in itself, would make a good non fiction story, it’s selling point is the fact that it actually happened. Our selling point is the fact that it makes a good story, even if it didn’t happen.

  18. 18. peacerenity

    “we think nothing of living in a world in which fools run nations and brilliant academicians are paid a pittance.”

    lol, please show your political affiliation and profession more, mr. coe.

  19. 19. David B. Coe

    I’m an author. I’m a liberal Democrat. If you don’t like the opinions I’m expressing that’s fine, but don’t make assumptions about my profession or my politics. For the record, my wife is the brilliant academician I was referring to, and yeah, I’d put her intellect up against Rod Blagojevich’s any day of the week….

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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