Stepping Outside of Reality

All genres do it.

What? You believed those incredible bedroom gymnastics in the last romance you read? Foolish Human! Don’t you know you’d need to be a octopedal invertebrate to manage some of those positions? And the non-sexual romantic parts of the story were even worse.

Now, outside of romance and SF/F, most authors try to keep some credibility. But that’s it. _Some_ slight credibility. Yes, a few experts can shoot like that, fight like that, crack safes like that, climb like that, charm women out of the their clothes and their top secrets simultaneously . . . We writers can make our characters do it all. While they ought to be prepping for the orals to defend their Quantum Physics PhD thesis.

The tone of the book rather determines how over the top the heroes—and villains—can be. Light hearted? Camp? No problem. Dark and Gritty? Meet the minimum required level of psychological problems, and anything else goes. Military? Gotta be realistic—but you can also have a team, that among them can do anything to awesome levels
And the equipment your characters have need to be congruent with your fictional world. The hero of your medieval historical adventure can have the finest horse that ever lived. He can’t have a motor cycle.

Your characters need to have normal human feelings and thoughts. Which is nice, because you can use them to explain away some unreality. “I suppose I ought to have felt guilty about stealing money from the government. But after you’ve seen the world destroyed a dozen times, the flimsy, ill-managed financial systems of the past just don’t seem important enough to worry about.” This for my time traveler. He regularly hacks the IRS’s computers and issues himself large refunds. Otherwise he’d have to get a job. No matter. The next time he changes the past, it’ll all disappear. (I did mention that the more over the top, the less the writer needed to cling to reality, right?)

So . . . Genres. What reality, and what unreality can you get away with in the different genres? What is absolutely essential? What is unforgivable?

Westerns: Cowboys, horses, cattle, gunfights, outlaws, and marshals. Well, yeah, the setting is very important. And there is often a romance subtheme. But the main thing I see, is men standing up for themselves, doing what is right, doing what must be done. You leave out honor, independence, and stubbornness, and the book goes against the wall.

Fantasy: I have a vague recollection of fantasies that didn’t involve magic, but I can’t offhand name one. Now, the magic may just be the existence of dragons, werewolves and vampires, but _something_ other than a completely imaginary setting needs to be in there. Some of them have a ton load of reality as well. Real places, real people, real happenings. With a thread underneath of the uncanny. A reader expecting a fantasy won’t like it when you explain it all away as smoke and mirrors. Ha! Fooled you . . . what do you mean you don’t want to preorder my next book?

Science Fiction: Spaceships, Aliens, other planets, time travel. Even a few things that could also be called technothrillers. But don’t think that just because you can handwave FTL and time travel and make up Space Aliens to suit your story needs that you can get by dissing Plank’s Constant. Nope. Under all the Big Wow stuff, you have to stick to reality in the known science details or the readers will kick your ass and refuse to buy the sequel.

Mystery: You need a crime to solve. Or something to investigate. And then you have to solve it, else the readers again get peevish. You can have a fast paced thriller type (frequently considered a separate genre) or an intricate puzzle to work piece by piece. You can have romance, comedy, or tragedy. All of the above. You’re main detective can be police of some stripe, an amateur sticking his or her nose in, the accused or whatever. They can be Vampires, Space Aliens, Romans, Medieval Monks . . . But the clues really, really need to work, else, book against wall.

Romance: There has to be a romance. Really. Apart from that, anything goes. _Anything_.

Historical: Umm, needs a historical setting but the dividing line between contemporary and historical is a moving target. Right now . . . I’d call anything pre-personal computers historical, simply because the setting and details have to be _right_. Your MC, in the middle of a Vietnam War protest does not pull out her cell phone and take pictures. Even though most Baby Boomer remember the war, even if they weren’t in it, it is now history, and you have to get the details right.
A lot of the problem with getting the setting right is the balance between what a historian knows and popular perception. When there’s a vast canyon between, the writer needs to toss a rope across and walk that tightrope to try to inject reality into popular misconception.

Horror: Well, scary, Duh. Just enough off regular reality to be plausible enough to be scary instead of ridiculous. I’m not an expert on this. If you want to write it, read it and see how the best do it.

Erotica: Do I really have to say SEX!!!!! Lots of SEX!!!! Oh, a bit of plot never hurts, so long as it doesn’t get in the way. But reality has no place here. Heh . . . check out the cute ass on that Velociraptor over there . . .

Now there are these semi genres that Dean Wesley Smith calls umbrella genres. YA and Christian are probably the two largest. They are focused and framed for specific audiences, with specific requirements. Young Protagonists, Devout Christian protagonists who walk the walk. Beyond that they can be Mysteries, SF, Fantasies, Westerns, Horror . . . yes, even Erotica.
All stories, in some way step outside reality. But most of them have to stay close enough that the readers engage in the stories. They need to identify with the characters, so the better the reality of the characters . . .
Look, they don’t even have to be human. Go see Guardians of the Galaxy, if you don’t believe me. They just have to be _people_. People that the readers empathize with. That’s the one reality you really need to keep in mind.

Here, have a free short story. A quick toss off, with no research, beyond what I already knew. Where did I step in and out of reality? What irritated you because I got it wrong?


  1. And I reviewed it on Amazon. Five stars, it’s the most accurate treatment about us yet. I DID point out one thing your anthropologists missed: those skeletons you used to construct the dwarfy hunched over models? Those were of diseased individuals, with ankylosing spondylitis. Check out the DNA, and you’ll see they were all HLA-B27. They got lost, broke their commo gear, and missed their time in the Autodoc.

    1. I think that psychosis, not fiction. Now if we could just get them into counseling . . . but where to find the millions of in-touch-with-reality psychiatrists to treat them?

        1. I just wish I could stand safely back and watch while reality steps in. Unfortunately their psychosis has spread so far and seeped into so many institutions rthat we’re all going to feel the pain.

  2. The major failing in the story is the quantum entanglement accident. Teleporting via entanglement requires the entangled particles to be at both the source and destination. While it is theoretically possible to teleport in time, it still requires the presence of the entangled matter.
    Minor quibble about the Antarctic Ice. The continent may not have drifted totally to the south pole 600,000 years ago. Likewise, the migration of Australia northward may have disrupted climate patterns back then, even if Antarctica was contemporary located.

  3. One of my favorite Diana Tregarde (by M. Lackey) short stories takes place at a Romance Writers’ convention. Diana is grousing about another writer’s magic system and how it absolutely will not work, falls apart, totally derivative . . . and when said incompetent writer conjures up a creature using a completely bogus spell (that actually works), Diana has to come up with something equally bizarre to send the thing back. So much for “only proper magic works.”

  4. For stories, I have a fairly high suspension of disbelief. Teleportation, telepathy, and time travel, sure. Batwinged fungoid crustacean carrying stolen brains to Yuggoth, why not. A beautiful princess falling for a scruffy looking nerf herder. Doesn’t seem likely but I guess so.

    Reality is what you can get away with.

    There has only been a couple of times where my suspension of disbelief has come crashing to the ground in a flaming mass of twisted wreckage.

    I hate to pick on Scalzi but I was I was half way through Old Man’s War when they got to the planet of the Lilliputians and our hero went around stomping on the natives. That was just stupid. Godzilla, I can accept. That not so much.

    1. Princess and herder would be a romance. Pam says _anything_ goes.
      Scalzi has original works? The only thing of his I have read is “Redshirts” and “Fuzzy Nation”, both derivative works.

  5. Hmm. Fantasy that doesn’t have uncanny elements? Maybe Jackaroo, by Cynthia Voigt? If I recall correctly, it doesn’t have anything in it other than real, physical things, and yet it’s undeniably a fantasy. It’s the language, the tropes, and the general feel that proclaims it.

    Mind you, it doesn’t have “magic” that is explained away, either. Just legends, backed by real people. So there isn’t a betrayal of magic, just a sense of a place that feels like fantasy.

  6. Once upon a time, I set out to write a fantasy story, only it turned out to have no magic in it. It wasn’t historical, but neither did it have the fantastic. The best definition for it was adventure.

    I think Christian fiction is more of a sub genre than at umbrella. It’s like you can have mysteries, and SF stories that are mysteries, but can the SF be properly called a mystery? I’ve done fantasy mystery, but never considered it purely mystery. And yes, I’ve written a whatsit SF-that-looks-like-fantasy with Christian elements, but it could never be called predominately Christian.

    So, let’s say that someone wants to write and market Christian SF. Like Caves of Steel is a mystery where the SF element must be prominent, a Christian SF yarn must have a prominent SF element and adhere to what is expected in SF, while also falling within the Christian framework.

    1. Lars (aka Larry) Walker has got some excellent stuff on Baen that has a creepy dark Viking end-of-time theme, but is also written with Christian characters and an explicit Christian theme. Stephen Lawhead retells a combo of the Atlantis/Merlin/King Arthur myth and puts a spin on it that puts it into the category of Christian fiction.

      1. Lawhead’s Arthur is well worth it, and Taliesin and Merlin are great reads as well. Grail, Avalon, and Pendragon range from unneeded to didn’t happen. Try his Byzantium and Patrick as well. I’m still trying to mentally unpack his rather ambitious and odd Bright Empires series, though.

  7. I don’t think Young Adult lit can include erotic themes. It can talk about sex, but I think that one of the bits that make it YA is the LACK of erotica.
    Now, Christian erotica: I talked about this with my gift-from-God, happily-ever-after trophy wife Vanessa, the elegant foxy praying black grandmother of Woodstock, GA. We believe that if anyone were to write a biography of our lives, it would qualify as Christian erotica. The Song of Solomon is astoundingly erotic, but most (not all) of it is written with veiled language.

  8. I think some people believe in the bedroom athletics right up until they try them…

    I can’t remember where I saw the video quite a while ago where the couple tried some of them. Hilarious, though. Especially remember the scene where the dashing hero leaped into the bed and was hit by all four posts as they came down… (Which took some careful props arrangement, IMHO, as they all hit at the same time.)

  9. Hi Pam

    The standard example for Fantasy-without-Magic is The Paladin by C J Cherryh set in a China that never was.

    There are a few others

    Little Egret in Walton-on-Thames

    1. I yield to the conscenous that “Not-A-Real-Place” is enough to call something fantasy. But I insist on a fantastical feeling. 🙂

  10. First, it was a fun read during a cleaning break. Thanks for the freebie. I normally don’t like short stories because they’re, well, too short. This was perfect for the time/place I read it.

    The only thing I didn’t like was the description of the divergence. At normal reading speed the terms you used didn’t have much meaning – and I didn’t feel like slowing down and thinking about it. I have no idea if we’re in the no-longer-real future or the police officer’s time-line. I assume the latter because that’s how the story makes the most sense, but we (for certain definitions of “we”) are Neanderthal cross breeds.

    It could easily become a novel of the entire expedition.

Comments are closed.