My Superpower is a regular guest column on the Skiffy and Fanty blog where authors and creators tell us about one weird skill, neat trick, highly specialized cybernetic upgrade, or other superpower they have, and how it helped (or hindered!) their creative process as they built their project. Today we welcome David Colby to talk about how the power of Realism relates to Debris Dreams.
So, I once tried to read Game of Thrones, and I got fifty pages in before I threw my Kindle across the room. The first thing that came to mind was: Oh god, that was a hundred bucks and my Mom’s, I’m so screwed. The second thing that came to mind was: Man! Everyone in that book was a gigantic A-hole.
But it is realistic. Feudalism, by and large, was a social system that did little more than create self-entitled jerks by separating the ruling class from the ruled and telling them from birth that they were chosen by God to run everything forever, which (as we can see from today’s spate of “affluenza” news stories) is a great way raise sociopaths like Joffrey.
In my novel, Debris Dreams, the main character (Drusilla) sneers and looks down on people with mental health issues as not being tough enough to manage life in space, which tends to be high stress (thanks to the whole ‘being surrounded by brain exploding vacuum every second of the day’.) And I was rather upset to see a few negative reviews from people who had felt offended by Dru’s thoughts and feelings on the subject – as we all SHOULD know…mental health has nothing to do with ‘toughness’ or ‘willpower’ and a heck of a lot more to do with your chemistry.
But it is realistic. In my novel, the space born civilization that Dru comes from was created in the same daredevil, seat of your pants 1960s style machismo that birthed NASA. Though NASA has changed (quite a bit for the better, if you’re not white, straight, male, or nerdy), at the time being disqualified for a mission by anything as invisible as a mental health issue was cause for scorn and derision – insofar as my research showed.
Realism is something that all writers have to grapple with. The real world is a complicated and messy place, full of contradictions and nasty situations, beauty and ugliness mired up and mixed together in a big old blender. But because our books cannot have seven billion viewpoints and describe the movement of quanta and subatomic particles, we cannot accurately build the whole world – we cannot include it in its entirety. So, really, “realism” means: What do we decide to show?
Which is our superpower – all authors, really. What we decide to show. Because realism isn’t really a word we can or should use, even for contemporary books. I mean, in real life, people’s lives aren’t directed by some invisible, godlike being who wants them to suffer. In real life, people have agency and random chance and a bazillion other things going on, things that we as authors cannot grasp. So, we decide to show things. If you have your character getting hit by a bus for no reason on page 55, you are showing the world’s random chance.
So, if I include my main character’s completely bigoted view of mental health issues, I am showing a real bigotry.
But then that leads to a question that every author has to ask when they write: Why am I showing this thing?
That is something I’ve been struggling with for a long time. When I was about fifteen, I realized that I would not be hit by a lightning bolt if I included swear words in my books. When I was eighteen, a full three years later, I realized that having a swear word every other word was robbing those words of any punch or meaning. When I was eighteen, I also realized that I could be “edgy” and have a female character sexually assaulted.
Fortunately for my eighteen year old self, I actually went and talked to survivors of sexual assault to try and get my character as realistic as possible, and when I had the book read, those readers said I had handled it well.
But I never asked myself why I had done so. But then…I did.
And my answer was kind of…cheap and terrible: I had shown sexual assault, not to draw attention to the real world epidemic of sexual assault in the real world, not to really further her character in any meaningful way (as the arc of recovering from something horrible to become a bad-ass general warrior lady is already worked into her character arc, without needing anything else.)
The reason why had been because I could.
And that wasn’t enough.
Fortunately, I’ve learned to better control my superpower – Dru’s irrational bigotry is a set up for a plot arc in the sequel to Debris Dreams where she learns that life is complicated and mental health isn’t about willpower – and I have been keeping up the habit of asking myself why I show anything in my stories.
Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should.
And realism is no excuse.
(I mean, come on, most books that excuse their horrible things due to realism never seem to think twice about the dragons, or magic, or robots, or space lasers, or vampires or any number of unrealistic tropes.)
About the author:
David Colby is an author of young adult speculative fiction. Due to an extremely boring life with no shocking deaths, dramatic revelations, or twist endings, David has chosen to write entirely about werewolves and space ships and other fun stuff that doesn’t exist…yet. His first novel, Debris Dreams, is about a teenage spacer named Drusilla Xao, who has been conscripted into a civil war between the Lunar colony and the Chinese-American Alliance – but all she wants to do is get to Earth, to be with her long-distance love, Sarah. His second novel, Worldshard, isn’t out yet, but he’s trying to get it published as we speak!
Also, he has a patreon, where he publishes a third novel that he writes on the side! PATREON LINK: http://www.patreon.com/Zoombie