In The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, I belabor the point that any science fiction, fantasy, or horror novel (or movie, or video game, etc.) is inherently “unrealistic.” Dragons aren’t real, so any story with a dragon in it is unrealistic. Right?

But time and again, readers (or viewers, or gamers, etc.) will complain that the SF, fantasy, or horror novel they’re reading is “unrealistic.” What they really means is that, based on the rules the author has set up for his or her fantastical (read: unrealistic) world, he or she failed to establish reasonable plausibility.

Fans of genre fiction want to be drawn into the fantasy. We read genre novels to take a trip to Middle Earth, or Ringworld, or face off against Count Dracula. That doesn’t mean we believe in hobbits, scan the cosmos for a giant artificial rings the size of Earth’s orbit, or sleep under a veil of garlic, wooden stake close at hand. What it means its that we’re willing, for as long as the book lasts, to suspend our disbelief and go with it.

But some of the most well-meaning genre novels have fallen flat from that complaint that they’re “unrealistic,” because the author set up some set of rules for, say, how long the hero’s FTL starship takes to travel from Star A to Star B in Chapter 2 then all of a sudden and without explanation it goes much faster, or even a little faster, in Chapter 10. Now that FTL drive, which does not exist in reality, feels unrealistic. If those rules, however, are applied consistently, it will still be by definition unrealistic, but can be, in the context of the novel, entirely plausible. The “unrealistic” complaint averted, readers will stay with you on your interstellar voyage from Star A to Star B. (To make that more science fictiony, read that as “Star Alpha” and “Star Beta”!)

Okay then, I think that’s relatively clear. I’ve given that spiel in real life and seen heads nodding and otherwise people appearing to get it, but I’ve continued to frustrate myself with the lack of a clear example of how this can go terribly wrong. One of the reasons I tended to back off from that was my desire to keep The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction as positive as I could. I also have an aversion to anything that looks like a review, and am terribly sensitive to any appearance that I’m writing one.

I’ve taken this risk before, though, and I think it’s okay for me to plunge into this, finally, and if you read this as a negative movie review then so be it. Still, my intent is to offer a detailed example of the very real impact of a lack of consistently applied rules to a genre story.

I know how hard it is to get any group of people to read the same book. Maybe it’s that they take longer to read than it takes to watch a movie, but most of the common experiences I have, outside a group of books that it seems everyone’s read because they don’t have a negative example to be found in them, are movies. Pretty much everyone I know who’s a self-described SF/fantasy fan has read Dune and The Hobbit. That’s swell—they’re two of my favorite books—but fail me entirely as examples of what not to do.

That leaves me with movies. Movies go by pretty fast (most of the time) and they’re easy to access. And the various oddities that intrude on the filmmaking process tends to produce more bad movies, I think, than bad novels. And then there’s just the twitch factor.

The movie I’ve come to discuss was one that the TV commercials got me very excited about. I fully intended to pay good money to see it in the theater, but for whatever series of reasons, I didn’t get there, and I don’t remember it staying in theaters very long, so I ended up seeing it for the first time on DVD.

That also happened to be right around the time I was writing The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and thinking a lot about this consistency/plausibility issue.

So let’s all take an hour and forty minutes to go watch the movie Legion, if you haven’t already. I caught it again yesterday on Encore HD On Demand. I’m sure it’s out there in your cloud somewhere, too.

Okay, back?

That was something, wasn’t it?

Let’s break it down.

The Movie Poster

Legion falls back on a very, very old story: the War in Heaven and the resentment that certain angels still harbor over God’s having chosen the human race over them. The movie takes this very big subject—nothing short of Armageddon—and narrows it down to a fight over an unborn child, a sort of chosen one/second coming who’s mother is a waitress at a seedy back roads diner somewhere out in the middle of the desert southwest. A fallen angel appears in Los Angeles, mysteriously accesses a massive storehouse of assault rifles, steels a police car, and makes his way out to the desert to join the disparate set of characters who have found themselves trapped there, riding out the end of the world surrounded by possessed people.

On its surface, there’s nothing wrong with this at all, and that’s pretty much what I understood the movie to be about when I saw the first round of trailers, and on that level, it did not in any way misrepresent itself.

Back to the subject of consistent rules and plausibility.

I took copious notes as I watched it again yesterday, and narrowed the movie’s problems down to two big categories: How the Monsters Work and Motivation.

There is not a single fantasy, SF, or horror author that can survive without taking those two subjects very, very seriously. Let’s take them one at a time.

How the Monsters Work

In the case of Legion, the monsters are ordinary people possessed by angels. But all this is applicable to anything that might fall into the widest possible definition of “monster,” including your bad guy wizard, a werewolf, a robotic war machine gone berserk . . . whatever.

The first time we encounter one of these possessed people in Legion is about seven minutes in, when the angel Michael (our hero) has just blown a hole in the wall of his secret armory (inexplicably choosing that route over the door) and is confronted by two LAPD officers, one who’s established himself as aggressively uncompassionate, the other quietly ambivalent, to the street people they pass. Michael takes the ambivalent cop hostage, holding a pistol to his head. The aggressive cop shakes in a scary way, the streetlight above him flickers, and his eyes go black and his teeth become pointy. Thanks to William Friedkin (director of The Exorcist) we know for sure he’s possessed because he speaks in what I like to call the Exorcist Voice—that deep, gravelly tone we’ve all come to know and love. The possessed cop warns Michael that he’ll die along with the child (which works, by the way, we now know that Michael is the hero—he’s protecting a child from some kind of monster) then he tries to shoot Michael. Michael shoots back and kills the possessed cop.

So far we know that our monsters possess ordinary humans, can do so at a very close distance to Michael, and demonstrate their, for lack of a better word, monstrosity, with black eyes and sharp teeth. They can be killed by shooting them.

We’ve seen Michael’s wings in shadow, previously, and watched him stitch up terrible wounds where his angel’s wings used to be, so to some degree we know that Michael is a “monster” too. We know that Michael feels pain and bleeds, and has strange tattoos. As Michael drives away in the stolen police car, all of the lights go out as he passes. This is strange, since up until that moment, his presence had no effect whatsoever on any electric lights. At no point during any of the rest of the movie does Michael’s presence interfere with electricity. Why is that bit in here, then?

After being introduced to the people in the diner, at about 19 minutes in, the people out in the desert notice a strange storm cloud gathering on the horizon, and their TV reception goes.

About four minutes later a car pulls into the parking lot from the direction of the storm cloud. An old lady emerges and enters the diner. She appears normal in every way, but within two minutes is starting to freak people out with a series of ominous non sequiturs. Flies are buzzing around her.

Is that ketchup on your chin, Granny, or are you just trying to kill my unborn child?

Then the old lady affects the Exorcist Voice, bites one of the diner patrons on the neck with teeth that still appear normal, and proceeds to climb up the wall like a spider. This is all pretty freaky, but then let’s go back and look at the differences between this possessed person and the first one we met:

In LA there were no flies surrounding the cop. The cop did his spooky shaking thing to signal he was being possessed, but we didn’t see the old lady do this, which would imply that she was possessed before she got out of her car. The cop started in with the black eyes, sharp teeth, and Exorcist Voice right away, while the old lady appears normal for four minutes before transforming into a monster. The cop was killed by a gunshot, but when the old lady is hit with a heavy iron skillet so hard it appears to break her neck (there’s a nasty sound effect then later the character who hit her says he was sure he broke her neck) she just snaps her neck back in place and goes on the offensive. She then exhibits the strange ability to slide across the floor without moving her feet, then is killed by a single gunshot.

So then are these two different sorts of monsters? If they are, at no time does the movie explain this in any way.

Let’s take a moment now to quickly cover the ominous storm cloud. After the old lady is dropped by a gunshot, they hustle the man she bit out into one of the patrons’ SUV and head off for the hospital, which is 80 miles away, straight into the strange storm cloud. The cloud is revealed to be a mammoth swarm of flies, which envelope the SUV and send them speeding back to the safety of the diner. The swarm of flies surround the diner, forcing everyone back inside, then it disappears so suddenly and so inexplicably that one of the characters feels compelled to make this comment: “You askin’ me to explain the behavior of a motherfuckin’ pestilence?” No, but if the movie itself did that it would be nice. Other than as a device to keep everybody back at the diner, the flies serve no purpose whatsoever, and  are not seen again throughout the rest of the movie.

Here’s a tip, everybody, that I hope you’ll take to heart: If you feel compelled to have one of your characters question the logic of the situation he’s in, stop right there and change the logic of the situation he’s in. If your own characters don’t think it makes any sense, your readers will share that sentiment and begin falling away from you.

Back to Legion. At this point in the story, Michael arrives at the diner and the diner people are instantly suspicious of him, forcing him at gunpoint to show them his teeth. When they see that his teeth are normal they begin to trust him. But then the old lady’s teeth were normal for at least the first four minutes they spent with her, so wouldn’t they wait at least four minutes for Michael’s teeth to change? I’d have shot him the first time he let slip some kind of spooky non sequitur, which he does right away. But I’m digressing into the motivation question. Here we see how a rule is set up: possessed people have pointy teeth, broken when we meet the second possessed person and her teeth are normal at first, then reapplied to test the voracity of the newcomer. Trust me, even viewers who never articulated this picked up on it, and the movie started to unravel for them.

Okay then, now all of a sudden it’s nighttime, and based entirely on Michael’s word they barricade themselves in the diner, being allowed some hours to do so. Note that at no time during these hours is anyone in the diner possessed themselves. At no point in the movie is it explained, or even hinted at, that there’s something about the diner, the people inside, or that there’s any sort of mechanism whatsoever that prevents the angels from possessing anyone they damn well please, wherever and whenever they want to, and for however long.

How about this idea: At some point, in entirely casual and incidental ways, Charlie the unwed mother touches everyone in the diner. We then hear from Michael, who’s supposed to know what’s going on being an archangel and all, that Charlie, the mother of the unborn chosen one, has a sort of magic touch. Anyone she touched can not be possessed. I would have bought that. See how easy it can be? It does mean that you have to be very careful to show her touching certain people and never touching other people and then you have to keep very careful track of who was touched and who wasn’t. But then no one ever said this was going to be easy.

Oh, wait, I think I just did. It isn’t easy, but you have to do the work anyway.

Can you reach one of those Choco Tacos in the back for me?

The next possessed person we see is the creepy ice cream truck guy. This is a pretty scary little set piece actually, which reveals more powers for our monsters. The ice cream truck guy has spooky eyes and is bleeding (none of the other two possessed people were bleeding) and though his teeth appear normal, he has the ability to stretch out his body and scrabble along the ground like a crab. He’s pretty much immediately taken down by a gunshot.

The fact that you can shoot the monsters from afar makes them lots less scary, but at least they do all die when shot.

So far in the movie, no one has commented on the wide variety of possessed people they’re encountering, and continue to be fixated on the teeth.

By the way, no electrical disruption or flies accompany the ice cream truck guy.

More cars approach and we see the people inside shaking in the supernatural way that says they’re in the process of being possessed. Unlike in LA, the lights don’t flicker. There are no flies.

For some reason the shooting that we’ll discuss in more detail under motivation ceases, and a bunch of possessed people calmly park their cars, exit, and surround the diner. One of them crashes through the window and tries to drag out the expectant mother, but eventually settles for the guy the old lady bit. He’s dragged out into the night and everyone’s terribly upset. More on why the next 15 minutes makes no sense at all when we discuss motivation.

The next possessed person attack comes about then, when the wife of the guy who was dragged out hears him calling out to her from the back of the diner. She takes down their cursory barricade and despite the efforts of two of her fellow diner inhabitants, opens the door to see a scary tableau: Her husband has been crucified, upside down no less, and his body is covered in pulsating boils. She’s dragged back in just as her husband explodes, showering her would-be rescuer (the diner’s cook) with acidic yellow pus. He dies, and they end up tying the woman up.

What new monster is this? Was the husband possessed? Is this another new power of the possessed, to explode and shower you with acidic pus? Or is this something the possessed people did to him? The world will never know. And this is never repeated or even commented on through the rest of the movie.

And it’s night again, and not a single possessed person has jumped through the window. Hours are passing with no attack, though they do turn the power off—they either have that ability at will as opposed to it just happening in LA, or they physically turned the electricity off.

Then a van pulls into the parking lot. There’s no sign of the possessed people at all, though we never saw them withdraw. Instead of just shooting at the van like they did all the other cars that sped toward them, the people on the roof watch as an apparently innocent father fills up his gas tank while his daughter, a cute little girl, looks on from inside the van, obviously terrified by, y’know, the whole Armageddon thing that’s happening.

Then the possessed people attack.

Our heroes, against their better judgment, run out to save the girl and her father, and it’s revealed that the little girl is now possessed. Someone’s been reading Stephen King.

Again, there are no flies, no one’s body stretches, and as of yet, none of them are using their ability to climb walls like a spider to climb onto the roof of the diner and attack the sentries there. Still, the possessed kid manages to get into the diner somehow and attacks the pregnant woman. Oh, yeah, and the lights have come back on for some reason, which the characters think might be so the possessed people could lure the little girl and her father to the diner/gas station. But then everybody else was just possessed and compelled to go there. I’m doing the motivation thing again . . .

Anyway, Michael fends off the little girl then the power is cut off again and revealed in flashlight beams are the little girl’s bloody handprints on the ceiling. Ah ha, we can crawl on walls again.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us with monsters who exhibit outward signs of possession either immediately or at some dramatic moment a few minutes later. They can sometimes climb walls but not most of the time, and can survive their necks being broken but not being shot. Sometimes they have pointy teeth but not always, and only one of them can stretch out his limbs and mouth, but none of the others can (or maybe the rest of them just didn’t want to). In other words, the monsters in Legion behave according to no set of discernable rules and are modified on the fly to serve the immediate needs of the plot.

Oh, my God, everybody please, please believe me when I tell you you just can’t do this and expect that people will connect in any way with what you’re writing. Set your rules literally in any way your imagination takes you—that is your only limit, your imagination—but for the love of all that’s holy, including the unborn child of Charlie the desert diner waitress, stick to those rules.

Next week, we talk about motivation, at the end of which, I am sure I will further invoke the almighty in a desperate plea for good writing.

—Philip Athans

Read Part Two . . .


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Charles Ryan says:

    Great article, Phil, and some spot-on advice.

    I do think there’s one school of thought in horror–not a good school; not one that produces good work–that equates “random creepy weird shit” with “horror.” Don’t fall into that one, kids, or you end up with movies like Legion and readers saying your stuff isn’t “realistic.”

    (To be fair, random creepy weird shit can be darn spooky. But it needs to be established as random and creepy. The ghosts in the movie Poltergeist had powers that manifested in different ways for different characters at different times–but the movie made it clear that “it knows what scares you,” so those differences were really all part of a consistent method of operation.)

  2. epheros says:

    This is a very valid point you bring up and I really enjoy the blatant references to inconsistency that proves the point, only in that you precisely highlight the problem rather than talk around it like many writing references do. Your comment surrounding How Monsters Work reminds me of Sanderson’s First Law of Magic, a self-claimed rule dictated by Brandon Sanderson (author of Mistborn, Elantris, and the recent Robert Jordan Wheel of Time continuation). The rule states: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

    This, too, leads to confusion and the moniker of ‘unrealistic’. If the magic isn’t explained clearly or is used as a kind of cheat (ala Star Trek: Next Generation with super genius Wesley Crusher) then it comes off unsatisfying. You are right though, if you do not, during the research phase, devise a system or ruleset that helps you remain consistent then you risk pulling off poor writing cheats or contrived storytelling. Once these rules are set then many times the writer has to rethink the story just enough to comply with this system, which ultimately allows more creativity and satisfies the readers need for compelling story and clever twists, as well as surprise the writer with a story path never one never thought to explore.

    Of course, the ‘unrealistic’ term applied to scifi or fantasy could be simply made by ignoramuses who think themselves above the plebes by reading strict high literature as if by reading it they are themselves brilliant thinkers. This goes with the whole genre fiction is crap fiction mentality as well. As if only those who develop their own worlds are showcasing their storytelling talent. I’ve always found that either method – shared world or independent – depends precisely on the skill of the author. Quite simply, it always comes down to good storytelling.

    Thanks for spreading the knowledge and I look forward to the next installment!!



  4. Great post! I just subscribed yesterday and am catching up with your archives. I particularly liked this statement:

    “Here’s a tip, everybody, that I hope you’ll take to heart: If you feel compelled to have one of your characters question the logic of the situation he’s in, stop right there and change the logic of the situation he’s in. If your own characters don’t think it makes any sense, your readers will share that sentiment and begin falling away from you.”

    Spot on! I never watched Legion all the way through because, frankly, I could tell a few minutes in that it was going to be a load of old tosh. But I totally get your post, and it applies to numerous other movies. Even fantastic movies suffer from “moments of crapness.” Look at Avatar, which has floating mountains, from which pour endless waterfalls. These waterfalls are substantial, and look amazing on screen, but where the heck does all the water come from? I saw Cowboys and Aliens the other day (a so-so film) and there was an eye-rolling bit where a wounded alien craft dips down into a crevice so it’s just below the surface of the ground, and inexplicably slows to just about the speed of… oh, let’s see… Daniel Craig riding a horse? And all so he could do a daredevil, heroic leap onto the alien craft. Sure, the craft was trailing black smoke, but the scene was clearly staged and totally unrealistic.

    Okay, these examples aren’t exactly what you were talking about, but they do seem to fall into the same category of popcorn-munching excitement overriding realism. That’s what most of it is about — throwing rules to the wind in favor of sticking in an extra-creepy scene or staging a spectacular stunt. The number of times during a car chase down a narrow alley that some idiot has reversed into their path without checking in his rear-view mirror… or, during the same car chase, a cop car has launched into the air and flipped over, rather than just stopping dead… Even in real life situations, the rules are abandoned: humans apparently leave ramps lying around near market stalls in case some cop car should come smashing into them.

    But back to what you were actually getting at! When it comes to writing, I try my utmost to remain consistent with the rules I set up. There’s one aspect of my books that I’m struggling with — not so much the rules themselves, but how much detail I should go into to explain those rules. I set up some portals between dimensions and started out with a loose explanation that they don’t always “line up” (ie, the portal is above ground on our Earth but below water in the parallel Earth), but although the rules were clear in my head, I didn’t explain them fully for fear of confusing the readers. It wasn’t necessary in the first book, but became more necessary in the second. I did explain the rules, but even now I wonder — if the rules are not perfectly clear, is it best to go into detail about them, or just leave it alone? Probably the best option is to make the rules simpler in the first place, but oh well. I happen to like my rules, but they’re kind of hard to explain. Still, I’m remaining consistent. 🙂

    Anyway — sorry to ramble!

  5. Pingback: OUR FLIGHT TIME TODAY WILL BE…? | Fantasy Author's Handbook


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