I love speculative fiction. The first movie I remember seeing (at about age three or four) was the movie Them. I had a Darth Vader poster looming over my bed, and glow-in-the-dark vampire teeth on my bedside table. The first short story I ever wrote (in high school) was about a guy who invented time travel, but neglected to take into account the movement of the Earth in his calculations and found himself floating in Earth orbit when he (successfully) tested his time machine. For some reason unclear to me today, he had an Irish accent, I suppose in an attempt to make him interesting.
However, my favorite writing professor in college, Percival Everett, refused to let us turn in speculative fiction for our assignments. No fantasy. No science fiction. No slipstream or cyberpunk or alternate histories. Contemporary fiction or nothing. I remember one of my classmates defying him and turning in a fantasy story. He returned it to her and said, “No dragons.” (As I recall her next story was set in modern day but had a girl with a dragon tattoo … I bet she wishes she had run with that now!) I gave him a vampire story once and he called me into his office, stood up, and let it slip from his hands into the waste basket.
I was surprised to discover one day, reading some of my professor’s published stories, that he occasionally wrote speculative fiction. I confronted him (of course! Because I was in college! And I needed more drama in my life!), and he laughed at me and said something to the effect of, “So?” He went on to explain to me that I needed to be able to write “real life” before I would be able to write convincing speculative fiction. The more I thought about it, and the more I practiced it, I realized he was right. So, here are five ways that writing contemporary fiction will strengthen your speculative fiction:
1) It will make your stories more compelling.
It’s easy in speculative fiction to distract people with the special effects. If you have a mutated alligator chasing your hero through a museum, it’s simple to keep people turning the pages. Whole novels can be written with stock characters who have no reflection in real life. You can get away with it. In fact, people may applaud you for the great ride. And if you’re able to pull that off in your fiction, it’s no mean feat. But if you can take that same ability and also bring in meaningful, moving character moments that cause your readers to reflect on their lives and the world around them, you’ve taken it up a notch and people are going to remember your work as more than a getaway from a fifty-foot lizard.
2) It will keep you from cheating.
When you’re writing speculative fiction and someone asks you a question about a character’s motivation, it’s tempting to say, “Well, that’s just the way things are done in Faerie Land.” Yeah, but why are the faeries stealing children from the humans? “Oh, that’s just something they do.” And what do they do with the children? “Um. I don’t know. Hide them away where they never grow old.” And this is because? “Faeries are capricious.”
That’s cheating. Any time you say, “That’s the way aliens think,” or “It’s different in the future,” you’re cheating your reader. We don’t want mysterious, unknowable motivations. They can be alien motivations. They can be strange motivations. They can even be hidden motivations. But at some point you have to reveal why the Morlocks are serving the Eloi, and why the Eloi sleep inside.
Imagine, now, that you were writing literary fiction and in your story you had a group of people who went around stealing babies. There’s no way you could get away with saying, “Well, that’s just what this group of people does” because we all know that people don’t do something horrible like that for no reason. “Real life” fiction shows the holes more readily when an author is being lazy or cheating on character motivation, and learning to shore up those holes will help you in your character development and your world building.
3) It will keep your reader better engaged in the story.
Let’s be honest, even books that are basically showcasing some world-building (Dune comes to mind) are, at the core of it, about the people. Dune without Paul Maud’dib would be a lousy story. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is essentially an epic filled with stock characters from epics with really two exceptions … the hobbits and Gollum. Many of the memorable scenes of the books, of course, come from those characters.
Now, it’s pretty easy to keep people entertained with stories about messiahs and saving the world. But what if you could do the same thing with a story about a man and a woman watching a television show together and wondering, without ever saying it, whether their marriage was going to work out or if it might be over? If you can hold attention with that story, I guarantee your next speculative story will be better. Because that same couple will realize, of course, that their strange infant is actually a changeling left by the faeries, and when they journey into Faerie to save their daughter they’ll also be discovering whether their marriage will survive. The reader will have a lot more to hold on to and to care about.
My second novel, Night of the Living Dead Christian, which comes out this October, is the story of a man named Luther who is wrestling with being a werewolf. Of course a werewolf hunter is chasing him, as well, and really that’s all you need for a nice speculative fiction novel right there.
In college that would have been the whole story for me. But because Professor Everett forced me to write other types of work, I knew I needed more than that. I needed to look at how Luther’s condition had effected his relationship with his wife and daughter, how the neighborhood looked at him, how his father had reacted when he first became a werewolf and how that impacted his adolescence. Those things make it a richer story, and make the reader understand the deep pain and loneliness that Luther is experiencing.
4) It will keep your reader from becoming distracted when you make character and world-building mistakes.
I recently watched a movie where the plot revealed a lack of understanding of human nature, economics, world politics and really pretty much anything in real life. In this film, people had embraced a new technology which allowed them to use remote control humanoid robots to live life, and the humans would stay safely ensconced in their bedrooms. Supposedly the entire world bought into this technology over the course of three years. And, although the technology was so expensive that most people even in the U.S. could only afford one robot (i.e. they didn’t have multiple bodies), somehow 99% of the world’s population used these robot surrogates.
I couldn’t enjoy the movie because there are so many holes in these few statements (and, believe me, there were plenty more in the movie). How did the third world countries all get their robots if they’re so expensive? What sort of resources were depleted in making BILLIONS of humanoid robots? How did they manufacture them all in three years? These sorts of questions don’t have to be answered, but I have to trust that the author at least considered them. The movie got worse … the few conscientious objectors to the robot-body idea had been forced to live on reservations. Nobody wanted them wandering around the cities with all the robots for some reason. Why? I have no idea. How did those people lose their right to travel in regular society? I don’t know.
A little more practice in looking at how human beings interact would have certainly made it a better movie. And, a small bit of thought would have introduced a more interesting plot … instead of dealing with a reservation of conscientious objectors, our hero could have crossed paths with impoverished people who had no ability to get robot surrogates … the moral complexities and potential complications for the hero would have been much more interesting.
5) Understanding other genres and how they work will make you a better writer within your own genre.
Okay, I’ll make a confession. For much of my life I stuck pretty closely to speculative fiction as the main staple of my reading life. I would take a break from it for superhero comics, which, okay, is pretty much the same thing. I learned a lot about world building. I read amazing novels which dealt with issues no one else was willing to touch, in a way that was both insightful and entertaining. What I wrote when I only read speculative fiction was basically an echo of what I read. It was carbon copies of someone else’s world, someone else’s ideas and stock characters moving through a quasi-medieval landscape trying to do something or other with some elves.
I’m guessing everyone here knows, loves and understands the speculative genres. We’ve all put in a lot of time and work toward understanding it. But if we stick too closely to our own genre (like, as I say, used to be the case for me), your work will seem derivative and in-bred. Breaking into some new genres expands our horizons as to what is possible in fiction, and shows us techniques and connections we may not have made within our favorite genre. I’m not saying you don’t already do this … I’m saying that it might be time, whatever you read, to pick a genre you’ve never been fond of and try it again. Get the absolute best Western you can find. Get a recommendation for a good Romance novel. Read a historical novel. See what you can learn from them and how that might impact your speculative fiction.
I realize that it’s difficult to make my point here in a way that is convincing without you actually trying your hand at it. So here’s an experiment. I’m going to give you five “real world” writing prompts. You choose one and write a short story using that prompt. AFTER you’ve written that story, take a character from your “real world” story and put them in a spec fic story. Be sure to put links in the comments so we can read your stories. I think you’ll be pleased by the results.
Okay, story prompts:
1. Two people who were best friends in high school meet after ten years apart. One of them has discovered s/he is gay and can’t quite get up the courage to tell the other friend. Show us in dialogue (but without ever directly saying it) the strength of this friendship and the underlying realities in each of their lives.
2. A young woman dying of leukemia has married a man old enough to be her father. Her husband’s daughter thinks she married him for his money. In an attempt to create peace between her husband and her step-daughter (who is the same age as her), she invites her step-daughter over to dinner without telling her husband.
3. A pastor realizes that after many years he has been serving God without interacting with God. He knows his congregation would never understand, and finds himself outside the church, trying to catch his breath, where he finds one of the junior high boys playing hooky and smoking a cigarette. The pastor, in his moment of weakness, finds that the junior high boy is the one person in the church he feels he can trust with this information ….
4. Two siblings take their miserly father out to pick a Christmas tree, and realize that their recently deceased mother had hidden the cost of Christmas trees from their father for years.
5. While helping her married neighbor clean out her garage, a woman discovers a packet of recent love letters that were not written by her neighbor’s husband ….
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Matt Mikalatos is the author of the comedy-theology novel Imaginary Jesus and the forthcoming Night of the Living Dead Christian. Being introduced to science fiction at an early age by his father, Matt grew up thinking that if he got too angry he’d turn into a monster, that Stonehenge could become blood-sucking rocks during the night and that you should never, never look in a mirror unless the bathroom light was on. Be sure to come hang out at his blog and his website, where you can read the first chapter of his new book.