Believing Is Seeing

On some level or other, a work of fiction has to be believable. Readers will happily cut the writer some slack: They want to believe that the story they’re reading is real — that it could have happened to real people, exactly as described. Perhaps the laws of physics or biology would have to be fudged a little, but readers will go along with that. Alice talking to a caterpillar, and the caterpillar is smoking a hookah? No problem. As a character, however, Alice is believable. She’s a perfectly sensible girl, and she’s doing the best she can (including being polite) in bizarre circumstances.

Once it has been established that the circumstances themselves are bizarre, anything goes. The reader has, in the modern phrase, buy-in. The reader is not going to go along with the bit about the rabbit with the pocket-watch and then object strenuously that playing croquet using flamingos as mallets is not believable.

If the scenario itself is more realistic, the author has to do more work to make it believable. That difficulty is what I’ve been pondering this week. Allow me to explain.

One of the three chief villains in the epic fantasy I’m working on is the high priest and hereditary ruler of a theocratic state. For various reasons, not least among them the fact that I wanted a spectacular setting for the climax of Book 3, this young man has moved out of a comfy mansion in the city in favor of his ancestors’ castle in the nearby hills. Living in the castle with his lady friend (they’re not married, and I’m not sure why they’re not — they just aren’t), he issues cruel decrees and stirs up assorted mischief.

This all makes perfect sense. But as I dug deeper into the rewriting, a disturbing question forced itself upon me: Where are the courtiers? The young man and his lady friend seem to be living in the castle much as if they were 21st century Americans living in suburbia. With servants, of course, but even so, they seem to dwell quite alone in this large, drafty castle. Yet he’s the head of state, ruling over a nation of somewhere between half a million and two million people.

Where are the sycophants? The social climbers? The toadies? The schemers? The pompous, self-important advisors? Dang — I need to add them. And this is a problem, for a couple of reasons. First, Book 3 is already jam-packed with characters. It’s entirely long enough and complex enough as it is; I’m nervous about trying to stuff half a dozen courtiers into it. Second, and even more vexing, in several key scenes having courtiers underfoot is going to wreak havoc with the plot. Clear back in Book 1, this young man flies off to a distant city (in a wizard-powered aerosphere, I should perhaps explain — a small passenger craft) by himself. On arriving in the distant city he stirs up some serious mischief. Hires an ogre to kill the heroine, that kind of thing.

In the present draft, he makes this trip alone. If I add a couple of fawning courtiers, that segment of the plot is going to be a mess.

In Book 3, his lady friend meets and befriends one of the good guys (not knowing that she has now opened the door to a spy). If she’s accompanied by an entourage, the encounter becomes really very difficult to envision. Their chance meeting has, really, too much of a modern American flavor to it. (It happens in a dress shop, if you must know.) There’s too much circumstance in the encounter, and not enough pomp.

The key question for the author, then, is this: Are readers going to object to the rather glaring absence of courtiers? Or can I get away with it?

Well, no, the question is actually worse than that. Due to circumstances beyond our control, once the lady friend dies (gruesomely, of course), the spy needs an excuse to keep hanging around the castle. The spy — one of my three teenage girl heroines — has to be in the castle at the climax of the story. But once her patroness has died, she can’t just hide in a cupboard; that would be cutting myself way too much slack. She needs an ally among the courtiers in order to stay positioned correctly for the thrilling uproar that is about to unfold.

I’m obsessive about realism. I want it all to be believable — to make sense. I’m pretty sure a lot of authors just ride roughshod over this kind of problem, but that’s not me. I want to get it right.

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