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Characters Help Your Readers Stay Afloat

No genre of fiction is more dependent on suspension of disbelief and verisimilitude than science fiction. In the last post, we talked about how conventional structures ground unconventional stories. This week, let’s use The Faded Sun trilogy to discuss how your main character acts as a life preserver amid a sea of alien creatures.

Suspension of disbelief is trust between the author and the reader. You establish it by giving readers at least one likeable and relatable human character they can cling to when the water creeps up toward their chin.

As it might the first time they see a six-hundred-pound talking slug zipping around on a noiseless sled. It sure did for me the first time I read The Faded Sun. Cherryh didn’t make it easy to picture regul with snippets like “a brown mass, folded and over-folded, its face a surprising bony smoothness.”

I had a much clearer image of the regul after I saw Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi. Kesrith was published in 1978. The movie came out in 1983. I wonder where Lucas’ inspiration came from.

The mri were easier to picture. Tall, slender humanoids with long, narrow hands and feet, golden skin, a “mane” of coarse gold or bronze hair, and golden eyes with a nictating membrane. The mri dress in black and veil their faces in the presence of non-mri.

Beyond the physical differences of the species and their peculiarities, lies the cultural gulf that separate the regul, mri, and humans.  

Regul are merchants. Their society is based on wealth and business acumen, which creates a perpetual power struggle between the many Houses. Think Dune. A business loss costs them status as well, possibly their lives and the lives of their offspring.   

Each mri clan lives in castes and is ruled by a matriarch: the sen are the priests and scholars; the kel are the warriors; the kath, the mothers and children that non-mri never see.

During the war, the mri learned English and enough about the way humans wage war to at least put up a fight. The regul learned nothing. The knowledge and memories they inherit prevent adaptation. From chapter one: “They could not forget what had always occurred, but conversely they could hardly conceive at all of what had not yet happened, and they did not make plans against it happening.”

How does Cherryh introduce readers to these complex cultures? By pushing readers into the deep end of the pool. To either give up on the book and sink to the bottom or take a deep breath and swim up into the story.

Kesrith begins with the kel, the warriors of the mri, sitting in a circle playing what’s known as the passing game. That’s basically throwing razor sharp knives at each other at the speed of light. I loved it, took a deep breath, and kept reading.

No one writes aliens better than C.J.Cherryh. The secret to her success is letting aliens be aliens. I thinkthat’s good advice.  

After I finished the trilogy, I realized that being pushed was the only way I would’ve learned the differences between the species and the intricacies of their relationships. Cherryh could have “told” all of that, but it wouldn’t have stuck in my head the way something I learn on my own sticks.

The life preserver that kept my head above water was Sten Duncan.

Sten is human, and so am I. What’s familiar to him is familiar to me; what’s foreign to him strikes me the same way. I observed the regul and the mri through Sten’s point of view, through his encounters with them, his reactions to them and his emotional responses; his distaste for the regul, his curiosity about the mri.

Because Sten seems real to me—that’s verisimilitude, the appearance, or the semblance of being true or real—so do the mri and the regul. If Nuin and Melein had left Sten on Kesrith, I would’ve stayed with him. Which is why Cherryh put him on the spaceship with the mri.

That human connection is at the center of every science fiction story. It’s what Sten Duncan provides in The Faded Sun. It’s also why the replicants in Blade Runner break your heart—because they only want to live. That’s an emotion every reader can relate to.

If readers believe in your human characters, they’ll believe every other aspect of your story, no matter how weird or alien or out of this world. Readers will follow you anywhere, even to the ends of the universe. Or as I followed Sten Duncan, all the way to Kutath with the mri.

Lynne Smith, aka Lynn Michaels, is the author of two novellas and sixteen novels, three of which were nominated for the Romance Writers of America’s RITA award, the Oscar of romance writing. She won two awards from Romantic Times Magazine, for best romantic suspense and best contemporary romance. Her only complaint about writing is that it really cuts into her reading time. She lives in Missouri with her husband, two sons, three grandsons, and one granddaughter, born on Lynne’s birthday. Lynne is also an IFW instructor. She teaches “Breaking into Print” and “Shape, Write and Sell Your Novel.”

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