The Rare Craft Post

All righty, then.  There is thing in the realm of fiction called, The Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

This sounds like something that the reader will exclusively bring to the work, but in fact, it’s a collaboration between reader and writer.

The writer’s side of this transaction is to build a world as closely as she can, carefully explaining the rules of her fictional society/universe to the reader.  Once she’s conveyed the rules — For instance, in the Liaden Universe®, we, the authors, say that Liadens repopulate their clans via contract-marriage.  We say that they do not make use of clones or growing vats or even surrogate parents/sperm donors because Tradition is very strong in this area, possibly carried over from Old Universe, which allowed cloning, and manufactured humans, and angels imprisoned in meat sacks, and God She Knows What All Else — and it was a hot mess.  The Liadens want more control over their genes and their destiny than the Old Universe allowed.

This particular bit of world-building exists, naturally, because the authors want to play with the scenarios created by a society dependent on contract-marriage, in which life-long commitment is a rarity — and not particularly treasured for all it is so rare.

The reader, presented with this World Rule, has two choices.

She can say, “Oh, OK; that sounds like fun — I’ll buy in!  Show me what you got.”

Or, she can say, “That’s stupid.  No Right Thinking Future Society would refuse to partake of the Wonders of Science! in order to procreate.”

Let me impress upon you, the readers of this article — BOTH of those are perfectly legitimate reader reactions.  The first reader will buy the Liaden Universe® book; the second reader will buy another book; happiness will reign in both readers’ minds.


Now, there are a couple places where things can go wrong in the Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

The first, and most frequent problem is that the writer dropped the cake; they failed to make their world deep enough and its rules compelling enough to support the reader’s belief.

The second problem, almost as frequent, is that the writer, having built the world, established the rules, and gotten the reader’s willing acceptance of both — violates her own rules.

I should say, violates her own rules without a good reason.

A writer who violates the rules she herself created for her world in order to get herself out of a jam. . .isn’t doing it right.

A writer who takes the rules of the world she created and convincingly writes an in-world story in which the rules are broken. . .may very well be doing it right.

For instance, there’s room in the Liaden Universe® for a story about someone/some clan who did, indeed, resort to cloning.  In fact, I’m feeling some resonance there in the story-chamber part of my brain; there are a lot of useful things that such a story might say about the Code, Liaden society, the heart. Such a story might serve to reinforce the world-building, while being contrary to the rules.

Another possible slippage of belief can happen from the reader’s side, as when the reader comes to the work with a Very Strong Set of her own rules, which she cannot set aside, because these rules are, to her, Only Common Sense, or What All Right Thinking People (or Societies) Would Do.  These unspoken, and sometimes unexamined, prejudices can rear their heads in unexpected ways.

For instance, confronted with a beloved character’s death, a reader will suddenly throw book across the room, and declare, “That’s stupid!  It’s always been stupid that Liadens don’t have bodyguards!  Of course, they would have bodyguards!  Anyone would!”

Except the Liaden society doesn’t seem to lean much to bodyguards, as the authors have presented it.  Liaden society seems to lean heavily on melant’i and on one’s personal ability to protect oneself.

A reader may also refuse to read about a father who abandons his child, no matter the provocation, because of a belief, rooted in the so-called Real World, that there is never a legitimate reason to abandon one’s child.

A problem may also arise when a reader goes into a story knowing How It Will Go — and the story doesn’t go there.  If the reader cannot easily relinquish their preconception, or if the writer isn’t skilled enough in their storytelling to gentle the reader into accepting the “variant” plot, then the reader will fall out of the story, and be disappointed.

So, to sort of wind this up. . .Advice.

If you’re a writer, build the best world you can, with rules that you’ve thought about, that have consequences which excite you as a storyteller.  If you don’t believe in your world, how can you expect a reader to believe in it?

As a writer, you do have the option to “answer” the work of colleagues with which you do not “agree” or which you believe has been inadequately or questionably explored.  You might, for instance, read the Dragon Riders of Pern series, and say to yourself, “No, wait. . .how would that kind of bound really work out?” and wind up writing A Companion to Wolves in order to figure it out.  You need to be careful here, and you need to be respectful of your source, but it’s not an unknown technique by any means.

You might, for another instance, read three Secret Baby Romances and decide to come up with a scenario where (1) a Secret Baby actually Makes Sense, and (2) the best care of the child was the primary care of the adults in the piece, even above their own happiness, and so produce Local Custom.

And, if you’re a reader, it might be helpful to bear in mind that there are very few “wrong” books.  There are books that aren’t your cuppa — there are books that aren’t my cuppa — that may perfectly hit the spot for another reader.

Rant done.


4 thoughts on “The Rare Craft Post”

  1. I’ve only once (figuratively) thrown a book. The author killed off a character who was the driving force of a major subplot, and all the other characters (including a daughter of said character) just sort of shrugged at the event and went on with what they were doing. No angst, tears, or other expression of emotion. With as much as that character had been working to drive that subplot, the death seemed like the author said “too many bodies to keep track of, I’ll randomly thin the cast”. I went two chapters further to see if there was some payoff, and nothing. Stopped reading, and never finished that book.

  2. Thank you for this insight. It will make a great deal of difference in my future journals and possible forays into fiction.

  3. The #1 offense that will prompt me to throw my Kindle across the room is a protagonist who’s Too Stupid To Live, particularly the kind of female character who will do something dangerous and stupid that gets herself or someone else injured or killed, and does it precisely *because* a male character told her not to do it — which kind of character you thankfully do NOT write.

    I’ll swallow a lot, as a reader, but I won’t swallow /that/.

  4. You may be sick of my praise by now (are you? Please let me know!) but one of the reasons I read Liaden Universe books is because you two make it SO easy to suspend disbelief. I literally am IN that world – a spirit suspended above each scene – able to observe in detail the interactions and actions of your very believable characters. There are very few (and none that I remember in detail) instances where a character or scenario feels “wrong” or wrongly done and annoys me to the point of losing my sense of that world. The only other series in recent years that has me in that grabbed-by-the-throat sense is Rowling’s Harry Potter. I think of you and Steve somewhat like the Berlitz of Sci-Fi/Fantasy – a totally immersive experience.

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