Unwarranted Assumptions

Some men give their wives jewelry. Others proffer chocolates, or flowers. My husband? Gives me blog posts when he sees that I am tired, overwhelmed, and stretched to the snapping point. I started a post on covers, but after serving as referee in a three-sided sibling war (now, there’s the plot for a space dynasty saga) I was exhausted and listless. He surprised me with a post, and that means I get back a lost hour of sleep. So I’ll get the cover post done for next Saturday and you get a Reader writing on reading today. 

We all make assumptions about life “This is the way things are done”. The problem with that, especially for writers, is that our assumptions are sometimes wrong. For example, I recently read a story where a brother was offering his sister a morning glass of juice, which she refused because she hadn’t brushed her teeth yet. For most of us that is a jarring misdirection. We are taught in the U.S. to brush after meals, not before.


    There are many other things we take for granted that aren’t necessarily so. Many younger people assume that any girl can beat most boys physically because so much of our media tells them so. Even older adults often buy into that nonsense to a degree, those who see a FaceBook video with a young woman beating up the bikers molesting her is a prime example, many older men didn’t realize that it was an obviously scripted event that was physically impossible as shown.

  Even in our personal lives we learn things that just aren’t true, not for the majority. I used to think that all our social instructions through books and movies were deliberate misdirection. Our social norms say that men propose and women accept or reject. Every romantic movie seems to have a guy nervously proffering a ring and waiting with baited breath for the girl to say “Yes”. I knew that was false until I was in my mid thirties when I found out that it was probably true for the majority of people. I honestly though all men got proposed to three of four times a year on average, which fiction told us wasn’t true. Then I found out that it was true for most guys.


  Since we know that some of our assumptions are wrong it behooves us to keep this in mind when writing. If your hero thinks that he is weird because he is straight you’d better have a good bit of worldbuilding going on and be writing fantasy or deranged SF. Normal humans realize that homosexuals comprise a very small percentage of the population, not the majority.
   Similarly any other minority position in the real world cannot comprise the main thrust of your story without some given reason for believing it. A story with no men in it at all could happen, if you place  it in a convent or other limited slice of life that doesn’t contain the majority of the world. If your character doesn’t interact with the people of the opposite sex, or differing orientation that is fine. Having them not exist takes a lot of back story.

  Since we have to make assumptions to live go ahead and make them, just be aware that everyone may not share your particular assumptions and it may throw them out of the story. This is where writers need beta readers, to point out such oddities. And it is why the rest of us should be open to changing our minds if we find out our assumptions are wrong.


  1. Tangential to this observation is the fact that the assumptions made by the third person narration can be part of the story itself.

    Your example reminded me of a short story (which I can’t track down right now although I am almost certain that it was either Robert Sheckley or George Alec Effinger) which told a simple boy-meets-girl love story, but was written from the point of view of a hypothetical future in which such relationships would be considered strange and shocking.

    No hard information about the society that had produced the story was given, but the way in which the current events were described and explained forced the reader to speculate on the mindset of someone who would need such things described and explained.

  2. I’ve tried pointing stuff like that out as a beta. I tend to get my head bitten off. I’ve since learned to stick with spotting spelling and grammatical errors, and that my expectations don’t jive with certain genres and their expected markets.

    What happens when you’ve got beta readers who warn you of ‘problematic content’? (A situation I’ve run into)

    1. “What happens when you’ve got beta readers who warn you of ‘problematic content’? (A situation I’ve run into)”

      Is it “problematic” to some wanker from the Vile gLyer swamp? In that case, pile it on. Anything you write that’s got a pretty girl in it is problematic. Every time an SJW cries, an angel gets a machine gun and a Puppy gets a sale.

      I write about Angels with machine guns, it saves time. ~:D

      As far as I’m concerned, an actual Problem is
      “this part is boring”
      “you said that already”
      “what just happened?”
      “this person has no reason to be doing that”
      ‘for God’s sake, are these people ever going to do anything interesting, or is it cuddling and compliments for 400 pages?”

      or, worst of all:
      “EEEEEWWWWWW! Get it off me!”

      Generally I do not want to see that in a reader.

      Now, if I could just get some people to read something… SHADOWDANCER!!!! 😡

        1. That would be -awesome- feedback.

          I in fact received something like that from a friend. I was informed I needed to explain why a sentient robot would consent to being property after it woke up. After two seconds of reflection, I went back and re-wrote a bunch of things. No sentient worth a damn is going to consent to that, not in my universe.

          Solution? Robot store becomes robot employment agency. The robots enter into -voluntary- arrangements with the human clients. As in, the robots once made are allowed to say NO!!! and they are allowed to quit. The human gets a refund, and possibly a punch in the face for pissing off their robot.

          That freedom of association was an assumption I made in the privacy of my own mind that didn’t come through, and needed to be said both explicitly and prominently. Being me is hard at times, things I think are obvious people need spelled out for them. Things I don’t even notice, people have to spell out for me. In very small words. 🙂

          1. As to bad reactions to comments from beta readers . . . Sometimes we stomp off angry . . . think it over and realize the readers was right, and go do something about it.

            It depends on the writer, and changes with time. I’m _mostly_ over that reaction, and can go straight to “Does this need a bit more explanation? Or tweaking? Or major changes? Or . . . oh crap, just violated one of my own rules about the universe!

      1. Now that sounds interesting.

        I take it the angels have to use machine guns or other such firearms and weapons when corporeal or otherwise not on their heavenly plane (where they can presumably just ZAP people?)

        1. They’re nanotech robots, not metaphysical creatures. The robot company is called Angels Inc. The reason for mega-hot robot babes running around with machine guns is secret alien invasion. With nanotech zombies. Why are they mega-hot? What kind of idiot would make an ugly robot if they could make a hot one?

          Recently there has been an intrusion of semi-metaphysical demons, to give the robots something worth shooting at. They ran out of zombies in the last book, sadly. They flatly refused to shoot humans, no matter what provocation I dropped on them.

          Today, as I’m writing, they are busy pranking the Dark Ones before unleashing the Valkyries on them. When you’re dealing with eldritch horror from beyond the mortal realm, you bring the hurt. Brunhilde’s got a big ol’ can of whup-ass primed and ready to pop, and Alice is itching to shoot the ancient evil in the face.

          Spoiler, good guys win, bad guys get hurt, the Dark One gets to be calimari. I have to figure out how to make it hard for them, otherwise its no fun when they win.

            1. I have to finish writing it first. 😦 Then I have to publish it. This is harder than it ought to be, the first book in the series is “awaiting notice” in a slush pile.

              I wanted to be a “real author” you see. 4th book in the series will be a stand-alone, its going up on Amazon. First time ever, so it will take as long as it takes.

              However if you want to be a Beta reader…

              1. Ah why the hell not? How do I get my e-mail to you?

                No promises: I’ve got a pretty swamped schedule.

    2. If you point out such errors and get your head bitten off just tell the person you are “beta reading” for that he wanted beta reading, not copy editing. If he persists ignore beta requests from him after that. If I had written something and asked for beta reading from you, I might ignore your observations, I wouldn’t complain about them. I know cedar feels the same way. If I did ignore it it would be because I had checked with others and found that it was one of those things which have several viewpoints attached. well that or a plot point turned on it and changing it would all for more rewrite than i was willing to give the work. One of the authors I was reading for blew off my pointing out huge plot-holes and glaring inconsistencies in the behavior of her villains because it was systemic enough to destroy the entire book as written, she would have had to start from scratch to make her villains work without stupidity they obviously only developed when encountering the hero. Live with being ignored, Even if you are right it doesn’t outweigh the other drivers sometimes. Besides, as a beta reader your job is to point out problems you see, not to ensure the success of that work

    1. I’ve been told my female character has kicked insufficient butt.

      More precisely that I turned her into a faux action girl (as explained in TV Tropes) when she was quickly and thoroughly defeated by a trained warrior.

      I reply: When did I ever show or imply she was an Action Girl? Up until this point in the story, she’d never sought out direct physical combat, and the few times she had to engage in combat she always found some way to give herself an advantage or was able to put the opposition down quick with a surprise attack. She go up against a trained warrior and she knew it, so why’s is surprising that the one time she was forced to, she got trounced?

      But there’s another expectation – and a flawed one: any tough female character is an Action Girl, and Action Girl’s have to kick male butt.

      1. Nobody likes to see Action Girl get her butt kicked. The trope is, she’s supposed to always win and never get any disfiguring or crippling injuries. Laura Croft never gets her nose broken.

        If your girl takes a swing at somebody, she’s Action Girl.

        There’s no point in complaining that the trope is stupid, because it is a trope. The expectation is there, and the audience will pout if you defy the trope.

        Therefore, you have to defy the trope -cleverly-, so that people are interested and pleased with your defiance. Which is really hard, and I wish you luck. ~:D

        1. Depends on the audience. I recently read an otherwise excellent book in which, when a giant says that princesses are surprised when not rescued, a princess haughtily said they should have rescued themselves — without facing, later in the book, the necessary comeuppance that should come with tempting fate like that.

            1. The author had better make sure the Fates are paying attention, or revise out the tempting Fate.

  3. Your beta readers really ought to be in your tribe. And horribly picky.

    If you can satisfy some of your core readers, at least you’ve stayed true to what you and they share. Proceed with caution from there.

    And know you are abandoning those readers (and possibly yourself) if you start going directly against your previous choices.

    I would have to change a LOT to be able to write a Romance. Other people are in that tribe from the start. There are supposedly readers for all of us.

  4. I once got a lecture from someone half my age on how “not all gays look alike,” after saying that our new boss (who had just introduced his fiancée) hadn’t seemed gay to me (like he did to several of the other new hires*, apparently.) I bit my tongue firmly and did not bring up the numerous guys and gals that I knew who were not heterosexual and who, surprise surprise, had a wide range of dress and behaviors, just like everyone else. Idiot.

    *He was well-dressed and interested in how people looked—important for that particular job—and somewhat hyperactive, which seems to be his ground state. I don’t know how they got “he must be gay” out of that. Assumptions, yes?

    1. You’ve managed to confuse me: you spelled fiancée with a second e, which is the feminine ending (if it’s a man, it’s spelled fiancé), but the rest of your comment implies that your (male) boss had just introduced another man as his fiancé. Am I reading it correctly?

      (Not trying to pick on you for a spelling mistake, but this time the presence of absence of that extra e changes the meaning, so I need the clarification.)

      1. No—he’s straight, and for some reason my coworkers assumed he was gay. I hadn’t, so *I* got lectured. The lecture included the phrase “I did a paper on this.”

        I had trouble keeping a straight face. Among other things, I’m a theater junkie, and I have a WIDE variety of friends of varying stripes.

        1. Ahhh, all is explained now. And now that I understand the story, WOW, was that ever an off-base lecture. I am impressed by your restraint in holding your tongue.

          1. I was very carefully not mentioning my friends the Triple Action Man Clan (with appropriate heroic illustrations.) Plus she was just out of high school, so I was just thinking, Oh honey, you have no idea what you’re getting into.

  5. The only reliable “gaydar” is to watch the other guy’s eyes. Straight guys will divert to look at passing girls. Gay guys will look at passing guys. WARNING: there’s some risk of leaving the impression that you’re gay if a guy notices you’re staring into his eyes.

    Within the last ten years, I’ve had an editor reject a story with a comment that the protagonist shouldn’t be gay unless that was key to the story. (E.g. he’s the only one in the party immune to the succubus.) It’s certainly true that lesbians and female-to-male transsexuals have become pretty common in SF of late, but male gays and male-to-female transsexuals are still extremely rare.

    1. Gaydar is all part of social cues. Now that I’m old I can “construct” them if I need to go to the trouble. Its like doing math, for me.

      When I was a kid of course, all that stuff went right over my head. I couldn’t tell when a girl liked me, much less a guy. Somebody finally pulled me aside and explained the whole thing, and a world of “Oh, no wonder!” opened up. Because then I could “do the math” and figure it all out.

      With gay men, my reaction has always been confusion. I don’t get the attraction. If somebody said they -really- liked pine trees, that’s about where I’m at with it. What is so great about a pine tree? Confusing.

      Reading about gay men is no different, the reason for the attraction doesn’t translate. Then I’m stuck doing math to figure out the book. As a reader, that’s a lot of work, so the author better make it super worth the trouble.

      Reading about gay -women-, that I get. I can see that obviously Miss X would like Miss Y, she’s awesome. I can see why Miss X doesn’t like Mr. Z, he’s dorky. Total chauvinism of course, but in other news the sky is blue and water is wet. When the audience is me, that’s how it is. I’m self centered, because I’m a human and a bit dim socially. Not unheard of in SF/F fans.

      The trans thing? Pine tree. Better make it amazingly sensible and important, or I won’t be bothered doing the complicated math.

      1. And “the math” gets weird. It’s bad enough to deal with the usual quadratics and sine, cosine, tangent stuff. Then throw in the assorted trans-this poly-that, etc. and suddenly one starts wondering WTH is a haversine anyway and how did that get in there?!

      2. I’ve noticed something amusing in a few books I’ve read recently (no titles or authors — I’m terrible about remembering that stuff). If the author is male, and there is a ‘group’ marriage of some kind, it’s one guy (usually) with two (or more) females. If the author is female, and there’s a group marriage, it’s (usually) one female with two (or more) males.

    2. At renfaires I’ve gone up to a gal who was, shall we say, “presenting her endowment” and made a point of looking into her eyes. “What are you doing?” “There. Now one guy will have looking into your eyes today.” After hearing a few “He must be gay” statements after that, I now make a point to add something like, “You should know that this is extremely difficult.” That gets a “Good!”

    3. Matt Bomer on White Collar. He’s a gay dude but he was playing an extremely straight dude and did a great job. Until the director decided a walking and talking scene needed an attractive woman with a very tight skirt to walk across the screen. Nothing wrong with that at all, but Matt Bomer’s eyes didn’t even flicker towards the very nice scenery. Generally, when he was acting consciously he was making the correct choices (flickering eyes down when supposed to be concentrating on her eyes), but the unconscious reactions were muted. As soon as I saw that, I couldn’t stop noticing it.

      Great show, and that didn’t ruin anything for me but it was something I had to look past to re-establish credibility of that character’s sexuality as being different than the actor’s.


    4. Are you referring to explicitly gay character (flying the proverbial rainbow flag so to speak) or simply just the “I’ve got a date with my husband when we get back to drydock” while talking plans with their crewmates? I can definitely see the first. The latter just seems a case of spice. Too much or too little can destroy a meal.

  6. I remember getting feedback from a writer’s group for an early draft of my first novel which pretty much amounted to how dare you write a character that likes being a Marine, or I’ve read Haldeman’s Forever War and that says all there needs to be said about war, and your technology is implausible etc. After listening to seventeen peoples feedback along these lines I was left devastated, and well I left the group. Baen said my book aroused interest, but wasn’t straightforward enough, now that was feedback worth getting.

    1. “how dare you write a character that likes being a Marine,”

      There’s your green flag right there. That type of feedback you take as a very positive sign you are on the right track for your target audience.

  7. Interesting, because I was reading over the start of my WIP and thought “Sheesh, they are a very young couple and they have two live-in servants, plus hire temporary workers to do heavy lifting? That’s crazy. Where are they getting the money? Why isn’t the wife doing more housework?”

    Except I know people and places here and now where hiring a number of servants (probably not called servants any more) is expected and people get upset if someone doesn’t. And caste systems place limits on what members of different castes can do in terms of work.

    So of course, in the book’s culture, the couple would carefully budget and scrimp in order to have a moderately high-caste cook/lady’s assistant and a general servant (who acts as the lady’s guard when needed), plus hire others as their budget allows. And would get temporary lower caste workers to dig a new flowerbed, or do the heavy monthly cleaning of the cart animal’s shed and haul away the manure. But I have to make that clear to readers, the sooner the better.

  8. The biggest assumption I ever made was that people weren’t lying to me maliciously and had my best interests at heart. Being the smallest, youngest, and one of the smartest kids in your class means you’re going to take some abuse but it’s how you react to that abuse that determines whether or not it continues. What I was told to do was ignore them because all they wanted was a reaction and if they didn’t get one they’d go away. In reality it causes the ignored to escalate the abuse to such a degree that it becomes impossible to ignore (if you can ignore a kid in your class who is older than your older brother leaping sideways at you in the hallway and slamming your head into a locker, well, you’re a better person than me).

    There are ways to deal with it, physical violence isn’t ideal but it can work (or used to before the concept of honor in fights was diminished), or you can sling the insults back. Join the fray, not keep above it. But ignoring them? Not only doesn’t work, it can’t possibly work unless the person doing the bullying is like an internet troll who is just trying to get your goat. Most aren’t like that, they’re using bullying and insults to put themselves above you. For status. You taking it? Raises their status. Does the job for them with no risk of response (whether physical or verbal).

    Weirdest thing was I knew it didn’t work, and yet I still had that assumption that it did hardwired in me until I worked with a guy who I went to school with. He never bullied me (he was a physical bully and even though I was small I was scrappy and he didn’t want to chance losing so he’d pick on wimps, not little guys), but he knew he was a bully and liked being a bully. So one day he was opining on what kids could do to avoid being bullied and his advice was exactly the same as I’d gotten from the teachers (ignore it and it’ll go away) and that’s when I realized it had always been bad advice that only works in the bullies favor.

    Then I thought about it a little more and realized it wasn’t just bad advice it was maliciously bad advice. It’s bad advice for the bullied but one that has the potential of causing the least problems for the teachers and the school administrators (Fights are problems, verbal warfare can lead to fights).

    The little kid taking the abuse? He or she doesn’t matter.

    1. That kind of thing is why I so enjoyed writing a book where the bully 1) gets whupped and 2) the adults side with the kid delivering the well-deserved whupping.

      1. Mine involves my guy beating up the abusive principal after delivering a The Reason You Suck speech. 😀

        (Things don’t go well after that… for anyone. But revisiting all this school stuff, a phrase keeps coming to mind: She’s sixteen. What’s *your* excuse?)

    2. My mother told me to ignore the boys who were bothering me at school but in this case I think she was right — evidently some teen-age boys think that the way to get the attention of a girl they like is to do things like dump mulch down the back of your neck, or flip her hair as they walk by in class. It didn’t really degenerate to the level of the bullying I hear about now, although at the time I thought that’s what it was.

  9. Okay, where is it that people brush their teeth before eating and why? Things always taste weird for an hour or two after you brush, and I can’t imagine wanting orange juice afterwards.

    1. I haven’t a clue, my reaction was much like yours. BTW I never got far enough in the story to know where it was set, the brushing /juice oddity was just the first thing to weird me out

    2. 1. Was it specifically orange juice?
      2. There are some toothpastes (the fancy expensive ones, I am guessing) that do not have the particular compound (it’s not the mint flavor itself) that makes orange taste nasty afterward.

      1. They don’t have to be expensive. We get cinnamon-clove because my husband grew up in mint-growing territory and got turned off by the yearly smell of rotting mint.

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