Believable Make-Believe with Cara Michaels


In this series of guest posts, I’ve been honored to bring to you writers who I hope have been able to bring insight into various processes for creating fiction. But what about creating convincing fiction?

I’m pleased to introduce Cara Michaels to address this issue–research. How much do you need for your story to breathe, and what exactly makes readers wrinkle their noses? 

A Dreamer Learns the Importance of Rules

Early in my writing—as Carl Sagan might’ve said, billions and billions of years ago—I didn’t dwell much on accuracy (Such as knowing Carl actually said ‘billions upon billions’). I had magic, pissed-off dwarves, badass heroines (haven’t changed much there), and imaginary places not governed by any rules I knew about. I didn’t give a rat’s ass about accuracy. I probably hadn’t even added the word to my lexicon yet. But as time passed and I found my reading-self scoffing at fictional implausibilities, I realized something.

Every place and person, whether imagined or not, has rules.

Rules are the skeletal structure lending your worlds and characters the support they need to make them believable. Do they all have to be based in reality? Of course not (you mean alohomora doesn’t open your doors?). But they should be consistent.

Believable Characters: A Tiny Woman and Her Fat Boy

About 5 years ago, a friend and I read a manuscript submission. For me, there were so many things wrong with this poor story that finding a place to even start was difficult. My friend had no such issues.

The female Main Character (MC) of the paranormal romance tale was about 5’2” and Hollywood thin. Nothing so wrong with or unusual about that, but… This MC’s ride of choice happened to be a Harley Fat Boy.

My friend, roughly the same height, but not of the starvation-diet variety, jumped on this detail. Her husband owned a Fat Boy and she had been on it multiple times. Aside from the near 700-lb curb weight of the bike, she pointed out she could just touch her toe down on one side, while the other foot dangled.

Me: Could you even get the bike upright to start it?

Friend: Doubt it. I’d probably drop it.

Lesson to be learned here? The Harley undoubtedly seemed like a badass ride for the para-rom chick. However, the first bump into someone who knew what they were talking about turned badass into ass.

Say you’ve got a whiz kid astrophysicist character and only .05% of your potential audience is actually a whiz kid astrophysicist. Or any kind of astrophysicist for that matter. Assume this niche is reading your story.

As writers, we’ll never get all the details correct because there are just too many of them and most of us can’t pay assistants or take time away from the jobs that put food on the table to go interview the real thing.

A little research can help you get enough of the details right though, and the result is believable characters.

As a bonus, you won’t get outed all over the interwebs for your slim, 5’2”, astrophysicist MC and her Harley Fat Boy.

Believable Worlds: Gravity, Velocity, and Mass, Oh My!

As Scotty most memorably informed Kirk: I cannot change the laws of physics!

If you’ve ever seen a Michael Bay movie, you’ve probably wondered (as I often do) how the man continues to get jobs (besides the fact that he has scads of money to throw around, great marketing teams, and meatheads like us who keep buying tickets). I mean, did anybody buy the whole, “we need oil platform lugs to blow up an asteroid” thing? Anyway, Mr. Bay likes to ignore certain principles of physics that frequently jerk me straight out of my happy corner of suspended disbelief by the collar.

No matter what world you build, you need consistent rules. If you’re using the Earth we all know and love, take that into consideration when you start punishing your poor characters.

Remember Transformers? Remember when Sam fell some ten stories off a building? In Optimus Prime’s hand? The whole way down I gaped at the stunt. Does Optimus have some kind of built-in shock absorbers? Because I think Sam just fell a hundred feet in something as cushy as a plummeting elevator.

Gaea's Chosen by Cara Michaels

Gaea's Chosen: The Mayday Directive by Cara Michaels

Space Travel, Drowning, Electric Reactive Tank Armor, and You

In writing my Gaea’s Chosen series, I get daily excuses to dive head first into research rabbit holes. In sending twenty people into deep space, I needed realistic answers to tons of questions. Where would we go? How fast could we travel? How long would it take to get there?

In The Mayday Directive, I wrote a drowning scene based off every flailing moment I’d seen in television shows and movies. The scene didn’t quite jive though. I wanted more details. I wanted to know what the character would really be capable of doing. What I discovered was that drowning is nothing at all like what we see in the majority of movies and TV. Drowning is very quiet and sneaky, and the reality proved much scarier and effective in a first person POV scenario.

On the badassary front, I discovered a developing technology known as electric reactive armor, which became the foundation for the electrically charged arc blades. I knew what I wanted for weapons, I just wanted to see where we were on the development scale between “carved stone blade” and “lightsaber.” Knowing this armor idea is out there gave me a stepping stone for my arc blades.

For Event Horizon, I had to wrap my brain around black holes, wormholes, humans vs. vacuum (the saliva on your tongue boils?!), evolutionary descendants of Homo sapiens, and more.

The character interactions in the series are the true heart, but these details add irreplaceable depth and urgency to the stories.

Gaea's Chosen: Event Horizon by Cara Michaels

The Devil Is In Your Details

Dot your i’s and cross your t’s around him, or he will bend your manuscript over the nearest flat surface, and your readers will know it. Oh, they might trudge to the end of what they’re reading if they paid for it, but they might not, too.

More importantly, they might write you off if they see your name again.

You are the cruel, heartless God of your world. Take the time to make it believable, and your readers will happily follow you.

Cara Michaels is a dreamer of legendary proportions (just ask her about the alien pirate spaceship invasion). Her imagination is her playground and nothing is quite so much fun for her as building new characters and new worlds with at least an edge of the fantastic. She’s writing whenever the opportunity presents itself and can typically be found tinkering with half a dozen projects. Occasionally all at once.

She calls Florida ‘home’ when she’s not busy swearing about giant bugs and humidity. She has one super-cool fiancé who doesn’t (usually) mind the hours spent writing, editing, writing some more, and editing a lot more, one son with aspirations of becoming either a great wizard or an artist, and three cats who enjoy sleeping on her works in progress.

Cara can be contacted at her website, blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.
Her novels can be found on both Smashwords and Amazon.

12 responses to “Believable Make-Believe with Cara Michaels

  1. Dear Cara,

    Your guest post was a delight. Thanks you for taking the time to write it.

    I recently paid too much money for a paperback by a ‘name’ author whose main character was supposed to be a budding astronomer. Very early in the book the aurhor has her looking through her telescope at the Andromeda Galaxy in Orion’s Belt. M-31 (Andromeda) is one of the first galaxies astronomers learn to find and it is most definitely not in Orion’s Belt. (It’s not even remotely close to Orion’s neck of the stellar woods.) I was disgusted with myself for paying good money for the book and only finished it to see how many other instances of taking his reader’s intelligence for granted I could find. I will never purchase another book by this man. It won’t matter to him because he is firmly ensconsed in the supermarket bookshelf zone and will cheerfully keep cranking out crap for the rest of his life. He’s made it, and it shows. No attention to detail and no consideration for his readers. Ah, well…

    http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=20000711

    You wrote about a scene not ‘jiving’ in your book, the Mayday Directive. I offer the link above for your reading pleasure only because it is relevant to your post. I understand there are as many opinions out there as pages in the Internet. Please add mine to the pile.

    People who write or say “Hone in on” or “It’s a tough road to hoe” make me nuts as well.

    As a former submariner I keep a list of what i call ‘Bad Submarine Books’. It’s a long list. The ones that really hit home are usually written by men who have spent time beneath the waves and know what they’re talking about. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to matter to editors and agents. Once you’ve sold one bad book the sky’s the limit.

    Strange world.

    Aloha,

    Doug

    • Hi there, Doug!

      I’ll let Cara know that you dropped by. You certainly have a lot to contribute to the subject.

      And I know exactly what you mean about “the basics” of any field. If a writer can’t be bothered to look up the simplest of information, why should I invest my eyes and mind on the novel?

    • Argh… the article is about research… is it fair of you to snag me on an editorial error? LOL, Doug. I actually *know* that difference, so I plead sleep deprivation. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

      • Dear Cara,

        Honestly wasn’t my intent to ‘snag’ you. Though if you didn’t know, you’d want to.

        Research is my god. Just the other day I learned through an observant blog follower that tree bark doesn’t grow up, but not before I’d written a story that had it doing just that. I see your “Arrgh” and raise you an “Oh crap!”

        Your faithful and ever striving to learn blog follower,

        Doug

      • Research is my god as well, Doug. I’m not even sure I’ve thought about “how” bark grows, but my first thought is: out. Is that right?

  2. Great guest post by Cara!

    I struggle with this as a reader and a writer. As a reader, I cringe when authors take 300 pages to build a set of rules for their world, and then trash the rules in the final chapter because they were inconvienent to the plot ending they had in mind. I also have a hard time letting go of the “FICTION” part when I read science-fiction. I keep yelling, “It doesn’t work like that!” at the pages.
    As a writer, unless the genre is fantasy, I find that I try to self-limit my scenes to people, places, and things I’ve experienced or at least seen up-close.
    That’s why all of my fiction is set in the midwest and everyone drives a Honda Accord. ;-)

    You can still be a badass in a Honda, right?

    • J… I don’t know, man. Maybe in a CR-X or a Prelude. LOL.

      The toughest part of endings for me is adhering to the rules I set out to get to that point. No deus ex machina here, tyvm.

  3. Thank you Cara! I think some authors think writing sci/fi allows you to not have to make your reality plausible. My first book, still unpublished, was a space opera and it was so hard to think through the implications of the technology to make it seem plausible. I hate books that do it wrong. Being an IT guy, it really peeves me when I read a techno thrller that doesn’t hold water. I like the ones that stretch the envelop, but do it in a way that I can believe.

    You give great points that every writer should make note of. A wonderful plot and good characters can be ruined by lack of research around the back story.

    • Jerry, I think plausibility is exceptionally important in sci-fi. Especially in today’s world. You can make it up as you go, but at least try to ground it in something real. I try hard to make sure that my series has a basis in reality, because I know there are tons of readers out there ready and able to call my bluff, lol.

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

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