Lessons for fiction authors from Buffy

I was giving a phone interview about my new book Armageddon Science yesterday to a US website, when Buffy the Vampire Slayer came up, the way it does. We were talking about the concept of the Singularity, originally devised by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge and later picked up by futurologist Ray Kurzweil. He believes that by 2040, computing technology will have advanced so far that hybrid human/machine species (probably fairly quickly discarding the biological bits) will push human beings out of the way.

One of my doubts about this picture is how primitive robot technology is. And this is where Buffy comes in - and the lesson for fiction authors.

All fiction, to a greater or lesser extent, involves suspension of disbelief. We want the reader to get away from 'this is just a story' and immerse themselves. It's a problem for every work of fiction, but never more so than with fantasy, where we have (in the example of Buffy) to accept vampires, werewolves and the whole Hellmouth setup. (Incidentally, I gather Stephenie Meyer claims she came up with Twilight in a dream. Of course - after all, it's really original having a story about vampires in high school.)

The really interesting thing I find watching Buffy is that I have no trouble suspending disbelief about a whole host of fantasy material. But where it goes horribly wrong is in the use of robots. Now and then humanoid robots come into the story, created by a college kid. Until they are damaged, these robots are indistinguishable from human beings. This is so not possible that my suspension of disbelief circuits can't cope.

The difference is that the robots are allegedly created by current day science. I know that isn't possible, so my mind rebels. All the fantasy stuff is just that - it's part of the world they're in, and I can accept it. I've no problem with a story set in a world that has technology that can create humanoid robots - but if that's the case, I wouldn't expect all the other technology in that world to be exactly the same as ours.

So the lesson is, I think, be as bold as you like, but make your world self-consistent. Suspension of disbelief continues quite happily in a fantasy world with consistent rules, but when you start ignoring that consistency then you lose your audience.

Wordle created at www.wordle.net


  1. Very well said, Brian. I love your phrase, "my suspension of disbelief circuits can't cope." This is so true about all fiction in varying degrees - not just fantasy or SF - and it's one of my biggest complaints with queries. If my circuits can't cope, then the entire foundation of the story hits the skids.

    Great post!

  2. Thanks for the interesting read!

    I'm currently writing contemporary fantasy and the past few weeks I've done nothing but working on plot and trying to tie up the ends in such a way that my own bull**** detector doesn't go in the red.

    And every time I think I got there, I try to sketch it to my even more critical partner and when I see his eyebrow go up, I know there's more work to do.

    I'm going to bookmark this post to read whenever I get close to giving up and think I might just get away with it. But I know I won't.

    Back to the desk now for more wriggling, twisting, crossing and dotting!

  3. Thanks, K.C. - good luck with the plotting!


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