As I routinely tell people, I’m not impossible, merely highly improbable.

But one of the funniest moments of since I “came out politically” on my other blog was the cartoon character who left a one line comment “Do you ever tire of being a stereotype?”

It was funny because it startled a laugh out of me before I even thought about it.

Look, life holds few distinctions (as Mr. Bennet would say, in Pride and Prejudice) however being highly improbable is one of mine. There are probably more improbable people (my kids, for one) but if I were a book character, people would be definitely raising eyebrows and going “You expect us to believe that?”

I don’t know what the percentage of people who emigrate is, as compared to the Earth’s population, but I can tell even in a country of emigrants (which Portugal is) they are still a minority. Rarer still are people who emigrate out of reach of family and kin and friends, and to a country that contains none of those.

This is why there are immigrant waves from certain localities into the US. I’m told entire Italian and Irish villages relocated en masse, mostly to NYC back in the day. This meant people who wouldn’t be likely to emigrate otherwise did so, because they were just staying in their “tribe”, the group they’d been born to.

But as a lone wolf? We’re rare, more so if we’re women. One of the things that drives mom nuts is being asked over and over why I came to live here, if I had a degree that guaranteed upper-upper class in Portugal. Sure, I married a foreigner, but in that class, the normal thing is the husband comes to Portugal. The answer to why is long, and difficult, even for me — though it was a decision consciously made — and impossible for mom, so she has come up with a set of just-so answers that have nothing to do with it, but are understandable to those over there.

I digress. That’s a huge improbability in my life, but there are others. For one being born extremely premature in a vast stone house, during a snow storm is one such, I– well, I lived through the night. And the fact I turn 60 this week is amazing, if you consider I managed to catch everything else along the way, and the locality was neither salubrious nor particularly hygienic. (We sailed little boats on the effluvium when the septic tanks were opened onto the watering channels. (If you wrote this in a novel, you’d most certainly leave that out.))

Frankly that I acquired the degree I did was highly improbable too, if you consider that high school education was already considered “educated” and that the entry to universities was tightly controlled on grades and school performance, and therefore very few people from a village school background made it. (In fact all my classmates were from wealthier families, ranging from “slightly better off and had tutoring from age 6” to “very very rich and living at a level my family couldn’t imagine.)

And once I was here, the possibility of my becoming a professional writer were vanishingly small before you throw in “this is not even my native language.”

So: I’m highly improbable. Honestly I’m improbable enough that I don’t blame the complete idiot who thinks I’m a construct. (It’s the motives and ownership of the construct that are ROFL. But that’s because idiot.)

Perhaps that’s why I like highly improbable but exciting worldbuilding.

However, I’m far from alone in this (and perhaps closer to stereotypical than not) and there is considerable evidence that humanity in general likes a lot of what I like: from massive multi-century conspiracies, to ancient lost civilizations, to time travel, to…

There are problems with this though. Look, people don’t like to be that wildly improbable in their world building. And you have to make the improbable/impossible plausible, to really sell it.

Now, granted, those of us playing in the sf/f waters are already at an advantage: IF you don’t want a slightly off kilter, plays with reality premise, well, what’s a nice reader like you doing in a genre like this, anyway?

But there are ways to sell it and ways to sell it.

Usually it is advisable to:

1- Keep your massive impossibility to one:

There are fairies and elves/unicorns, whatever or “in a hundred years we have colonies in dozens of extra-solar worlds, for instance. each of these is usually sufficient, though I’m trying to combine them in one novel, but that’s …. so…. I have an explanation.

There is a bravura performance to carry a dozen impossibilities in a novel. It can be done, but it’s a master-level thing. I personally tend to throw away books when yet another impossibility is pushed for no reason that makes sense.

2 – If you must have more than one modification from objective reality:

a) Make sure there is one that is the “important” one without which the novel wouldn’t exist.

Take Darkship Thieves series: I made the bio-engineering the central “wouldn’t exist without this” premise. The other stuff, like anti-grav wands and flying cars and artificial islands? That was strictly rule of cool, for the feel of retro-futuristic which is what I was going for.

b) The important premise must be as rock solid “hard sf” as you can make it. So research, etc.

c) give it enough time in the future or a thoroughly parallel universe for it to work on the “but we don’t know this.

d) Make the people as real as you can possibly do.

3- If working on “secret histories” in which elves, fairies, whatever the heck have always been there, you must:

a) research real history as hard and deeply as you can, and make sure you can hide things in certain “pockets.”

b) anchor it as hard as you can to real events or incidents, which you might need to show in the novel itself.

Okay, off the top of my head — which is not fully on today, for that matter — this is the best I can think of.

OTOH I’m sure some of you have questions and suggestions.

Oh, yeah, be glad you’re doing this in fiction, meaning, you just need to make it plausible enough for the duration of the story and then you dance off stage as fast as you can, and no one sees the facades without backing, or the wires pulling history into place.

It’s much harder to do this in real life.

Trust me. I know of what I speak.

One day the timeline will rectify and I’ll vanish with an Earth-shattering kaboom.


  1. On “impossible people”, David Weber was talking about some of his smart villains doing extremely stupid things.

    He mentioned a historical person who was obviously smart but did stupid things who if he appeared in a work of fiction people who say that it wouldn’t be possible for a smart person to do such idiotic things. 😈

    1. “Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense.”
      Rod Machado, Oscar Wilde, and a lot of other people down the centuries

    2. It’s important to give your smart characters justifications for being stupid. Because the obvious reason is that the writer made them do it.

      1. Ditto. My own instinct in an uncomfortable spot is to roll with the punches and see what opportunities for escape or improvement come my way, so my protagonists tend to do that as well. It might make them less exciting people in some ways, but at least they’re not going around picking stupid and unnecessary fights.

        1. I was recently writing a scene and with every paragraph I wrote I felt it got worse and worse (that is, more and more improbable). It just did not feel right, not the way it should feel, but I toughed it out for two or three stop-and-start pages to see if I could make it work. It did not. So I deleted everything I wrote and went in a whole different direction and I’m much more satisfied. Sometimes it seems like the characters themselves are telling you when YOU’RE the one making them do something instead of their own stupid egos making them do it.

  2. I’m of the opinion this post today is about writing….but I’m not absolutely sure anymore. This timeline we’re living in seems a bit off kilter lately.

    1. Bah. This timeline’s kilter has fallen off the edge of the universe into the Eternal Abyss. We’re utterly kilter-less. 😮

    1. I need to go make linner (lunch/dinner. I’m on a meal a day. Yes, it IS shocking my body into losing weight. If I can shed 30 lbs this way, I can always change when it slows/stops.)
      And then write. Myself.

        1. And on the impossibility quotient, I’ve ended up establishing that both the good guys and the bad guys are devout Christians.

          Not because I planned to, but because I needed a reason for one character to have seen a very weathered stone (the second wave settlers brought cathedrals from Earth), a sympathetic aspect for someone who will be a primary antagonist, and a reason to mention the place has three suns.

          This is going to be such a weird story.

          Thing is, having seen it, I’m not sure it could be another way. If the civil war itself is fueled by the question of what is human, both sides have to start from the same basic philosophical foundation, and from a foundation that even cares about the basic question.

  3. One important point about writing stories set in impossible worlds is that the people who live there don’t know they’re impossible. Too often in SF I run across a protagonist about to teleport to work who pauses to contemplate the invention of teleportation in 2055 and how it changed society in the years since then. When I take my car to work I’m not thinking about Henry Ford, I’m thinking about what I am planning to accomplish at work, or my plans for after work, or something along those lines.

    The other thing to remember is that the world is not the story. “What if there were personal jetpacks and everybody could fly?” is not a story. “Joe plans and executes a jewel heist made more complicated because it’s in a world where there are personal jetpacks and everyone can fly.” is a story. If we care about Joe and want him to succeed (or we care about Frank, who is trying to catch Joe) then we’ll buy the jetpacks.

  4. Well, you know what they say: “Fiction must be plausible. Reality just has to happen.” 😀

  5. On being improbable, Ogden Nash wrote:

    “I like the duck-billed platypus
    Because it is anomalous.
    I like its independent Attitude;
    Let no one call it a duck-billed platitude.”

    You are no platitude, Sarah. Thank you for just the who you are.

  6. Orson Scott Card write that you get one piece of “balognium” per story. After that, things had to make sense within the world of the story, and have a logic and reason to them. (I’m not sure what he thinks of David Weber’s tech-dumps and weapons, but the books sell, so hey!)

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