I slept through the alarm this morning and it’s Charlaine Harris’ fault. You see, I love well-done urban fantasy. Yesterday, after work, I went and picked up a couple of her books and...well, let’s say I stayed up WAY past my bedtime. Nor is it the first time. I pick up a book, or tune into a show, and if it’s well done enough, time just passes me by.
So I started thinking, what makes me come back to a story or show again and again, as opposed to setting down the book or changing channels and feeling that I’ve wasted my time?
For me it all comes down to investing in the characters and situations. And that hinges on believability.
Believability in fiction is hugely important. To quote Laurell K. Hamilton: “...you have to be real enough on the real world for the reader to believe all the fantastic stuff. If you can’t make the reader believe your main character is lying in a hospital bed with real nurses and real doctors, then they’ll never buy the eternally-young, eternally-handsome, harem of supernatural warriors. It takes a very serious dose of reality to get readers to follow you to faerie land, and believe that they actually made the visit.”
One of the reasons I am a huge fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files is that Harry is so believable to me. He’s not perfect. He gets hurt. He screws up. And he lives in a world that is absolutely realistic. In Turn Coat for example, when he senses he’s being followed, he tries something that backfires to the point where he can’t function well enough to drive. His car jumps the curb. Other drivers honk. When he abandons his vehicle he observes that (a) it will be towed and impounded; and (b) that everyone probably thinks he’s drunk.
Or in another scene, in Small Favor, after one of the characters has been critically injured he describes, in detail, a hospital scene:
“Hospital waits are bad ones. The fact that they happen to pretty much all of us, sooner or later, doesn’t make them any less hideous. They’re always just a bit too cold. It always smells just a little bit too sharp and clean. It’s always quiet, so quiet that you can hear the flourescent lights—another constant, those lights—humming. Pretty much everyone else there is in the same bad predicament you are, and there isn’t much in the way of cheerful conversation.
“And there’s always a clock in sight. The clock has superpowers. It always seems to move too slowly. Look up at it and it will tell you the time. Look up an hour and a half later, and it will tell you two minutes have gone by...."
Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse is a telepath. She has a talent that, on the one hand, makes her valuable enough that the Queen of the Louisiana Vampires hires her to come to a vampire summit. On the other hand, that same talent labels her a freak among the “normal” residents of Bon Temps, made attending school hellish for her, and makes dating non-supernatural types practically impossible. The problems and her struggle to appear normal and fit into her society ring true to me.
In television, nearly anything by Joss Whedon will probably end up being a favorite of mine. Using humor, pop culture references, and shared experiences, he created a believable background for the television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is set primarily in Sunnydale High School. Most people raised in the US share a wealth of high school experiences. Joss Whedon built on that beautifully. Buffy is the chosen, the slayer, the “one” from her generation. She also tries out for cheerleader, is awkward with guys, and has to work out a “round robin” of who she’s supposed to be staying with to fool her mom when she’s going to be out slaying all night. Early in the series, Giles, her watcher, wants her to use her intuition to pick out a vampire in The Bronze (the local hot spot). Instead, she spots him based on her fashion sense, checking out his clothes:
Giles: “It’s dated?”
Buffy: “It’s carbon dated.”
As I said, I love urban fantasy. And to me, believability is one of the keys to doing it well, in film, video, and print.
C.T. Adams began writing with Cathy Clamp in 1997. Together, they have published more than a dozen books; you can visit their website for the latest news, writing advice, and more.