In his essay “Wood Knot Dew,” Piers Anthony defines science fiction as “the literature of the possible” and fantasy as the “literature of the impossible.” His idea that SciFi is based on making an untrue fact true and fantasy is the understanding that all the facts are contrary to what is, really comes down to making your work believable.
The crux of the issue, most of the time, is less about what your world does (we expect dragons, robots, and epic fights) and more about how your characters react to it and each other.
Friends get into a fight? Believable. Friends get into a fight and immediately apologize to each other? Unbelievable. You’ve never had an experience like this. And neither have your readers.
One popular piece of writing advice is to have ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances, and extraordinary characters in ordinary circumstances. Well, I side with Piers Anthony that what you really want is believable characters in unbelievable situations.
Regardless of your genre, your cardinal rule is to make it believable.
All you need is the right approach. You should strive to get the reader on your side, willingly and eager to suspend their disbelief.
A key point is to be consistent in your framework. Unless inconsistency is a key part of your story. Another is to have small human details referenced throughout the work.
Consider that if an ogre stubs his toe, he will nurse the injury.
Dragon’s get itchy wings.
Bullies get upset at bad grades.
Robots… are robots… they don’t have feelings. Unless they do in which case we need to talk about what it means to be sentient.
All of this humanizes things. You remember when you stubbed your toe, and when you had an itch on your back that you couldn’t reach, and when you got bad grades, and when you were a robot… wait…
When you identify with the cast you can then accept the ways in which these characters and this world are different and still root for them.
Difference is important. Consider how hard you roll your eyes whenever you read something like “I’m not like other girls.” Or you see yet another character who just likes to read and doesn’t fit in anywhere. You don’t want them to be like every other character you’ve ever read. As Piers Anthony says, “You know, strong, handsome, beautiful, smart, talented yet intriguingly vulnerable. These qualities are fine, but they don’t suffice.” The differences you create should be significant, they should distinguish your characters from all the others in existence, without making them too different to be appealing. Remember, we don’t want to see perfection–we want to relate to these human characters.
Here’s an exercise:
Find some minor but nice ways to distinguish your main character from all others in the past or present, or who may in some alternate future come into being. Maybe even make notes of prospective traits you can draw on at need.
Keep an ideas file or notebook just for that purpose.
Alternatively, take a popular character and explore that world with one key aspect of their character changed. How does Curious George read if George isn’t curious at all?