Reading a whole slew of science fiction this summer, including many titles I wouldn’t have sought out for myself. A few are Community recommendations, and the rest are the informal syllabus for my upcoming writing workshop. I tend to read in patterns, usually by what feels like coincidence; for a month last year it was Tam Lin stories, and for the moment, it’s military coming-of-age stories featuring guys with excellent brains and more than their fair share of good luck.
Would I notice these protagonists had been oversupplied with luck if I hadn’t read all of these books in short order? Yes. It’s a pet peeve, in fact. Things coming too easy, answers arriving in flashes of insight or coincidental conjunctions, tend to jar my suspension of disbelief. I can only be won back through a great deal of compensatory hardship for the protagonist.
On examination, though, I find I have no grounds for finding this ease unbelievable. I possess, after all, the type of brain that makes connections without showing its work. Many of my good ideas feel as if they’ve arrived in my brain straight from the gods. It shouldn’t be a stretch for me to believe the same thing can happen to these protagonists: the only real difference is that the stakes are higher in genre fiction. (High stakes never seem to pose a suspension-of-disbelief problem for me when I’m reading about someone kicking the ass of a dozen goblins or zombies or ninjas.)
I could make a case for too-good timing: these guys always seem to have their inspirations in the nick of time, where some of mine come a fraction too late. But that’s a pretty small quibble. In genre fiction, as in history, we tend to tell the stories of people who won, or at least survived. Generally when the stakes are high, winning or survival do require a bit more intelligence and/or luck than average.
Basically, as a person who in real life seems to be both fairly lucky and fairly smart, I don’t have grounds for discounting characters with the same traits. However, I think I’ve figured out the pet peeve: despite having good luck and an OK brain, I still have to work hard. And it drives me batty when characters don’t seem to have to do the same, when their luck or smarts are actually a substitute for hard work instead of a useful adjunct. Maybe it’s writerly wish-fulfilment–as so many things are–but since it’s a wish I don’t share, I find it harder to forgive than the ones I do share (such as the wish for magical ass-kicking abilities).
So: In my own writing, my characters have a hard time of it. And now that I’ve had this little talk with myself, they’ll have a harder time still.