Speculative fiction is the exotic coffee, more spicy than sweet, of the book world. You know you’re smelling coffee, but a flavor you didn’t expect suffuses that familiar aroma, and you inhale again, trying to place it. Speculative fiction still tastes and smells like fiction, but something unusual tingles on the pages, a trait in which most spec writers take pride. Rule-bending.
Craft books state that fiction should be more plausible than the news. A writer can’t expect the reader to believe his plot simply because “this happened to someone once.” Readers want to believe not only that this could happen, but also that it would happen. Sure, someone somewhere has been struck twice by lightning. But if this fate befalls a fictional character, readers will shake their heads. “That would never happen.”
Unless, of course, said character’s skeleton has been replaced with a conductive metal so he can attract lightning, absorb its energy, and throw electrical bolts at his enemies.
See? Speculative characters get away with anything.
The sky’s not the limit. Speculative characters fly starships across galaxies. They survive the apocalypse. They read minds. They fight vampires, or fall in love with vampires, or are vampires. Speculative writers constantly bend the rules of what’s possible and what’s not. Still, there are writing rules not even we can break.
The first is the rule of consistency. Once established, the principles of Storyworld can’t be tossed aside at the writer’s convenience. If your ghost can’t interact with the physical world, he shouldn’t rearrange the furniture midway through the book. If he does, the new principle has to be explained and believable.
The second is the rule of human realism. As the reader suspends disbelief in the Storyworld, he should never have to suspend disbelief in the characters. They should speak as people speak. They should feel as people feel, think as people think, act as people act. Sure, some of them aren’t human. Some of them face obstacles no person will ever face. Yet the greatest of speculative fiction, like greatest of any genre, captures humankind on the page.
The extreme lives of spec characters can show extreme humanity, people at their best and their worst as well as their in-between. Selfless and selfish. If stress in real life shows our true colors, then stress beyond real life should enhance those colors. The darker the world, the brighter redemption can shine. Dive into your Storyworld and see how its extremes have molded your character. Dive into your extreme character and find the universally human pieces.
In the genre of rule-bending, honor these two rules, and your spec will be about more than space or superpowers. It will be about the beautiful, awful human race.
At five years old, Amanda G. Stevens disparaged Mary Poppins and Stuart Little because they could never happen. Now, she writes speculative fiction. Currently unpublished, Amanda semi-finaled in ACFW’s 2011 Genesis contest. She lives in Michigan with her addictions: Amazon.com and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.