63 – Rational Fiction

Alexander Wales and DayStar Eld join us to discuss Rational Fiction

Their Podcast – Rationally Writing

Alexander Wales’s page

DayStar Eld’s page

Eneasz’s Fiction

The Progenitor – Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

/r/rational on Reddit

The Idiot Ball

Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Abridged Guide to Intelligent Characters



The /r/ration definition of Rational Fiction:

Nothing happens solely because ‘the plot requires it’. If characters do (or don’t do) something, there must be a plausible reason.
Any factions are defined and driven into conflict by their beliefs and values, not just by being “good” or “evil”.
The characters solve problems through the intelligent application of their knowledge and resources.
The rules of the fictional world are sane and consistent.
In Rationalist Fiction:
As well as the above,
The main character uses (or tries to use) rationalist and scientific methods to demystify seemingly mysterious phenomena.
The story shows rationalist techniques, which can be applied by readers.
The story is like a puzzle; readers can reach the same solution as the characters by using the information provided earlier in the story.


Various definitions and opinions on Rational Fiction that Eneasz has clipped over the years:

nostlgabraist: [it’s] really more about elaborate mind games between self-interested characters with flairs for the dramatic

If there’s an aesthetic common denominator I can describe from all of these, or at least most of them, it’s something like: blunt and cynical (often with humorous intent) in tone, dark or at least not reluctant to get very dark at times, often includes extremely powerful or intelligent characters, sense of scale or “many orders of magnitude.”


EY re: swordart online

>What part of any of that was “rational”

I need to write a long diatribe on Tru Rationalfic at some point, but a very brief answer would be that a standard subtrope is looking at a fictional world and seeing another way of interpreting the characters’ observations as corresponding to different simple generators. In this case the hinge of the fic is that the people inside SAO have no way of knowing people are really dying and Kayaba has every reason not to kill them. Kayaba setting up his general rule for the final battle, rather than Kirito “miraculously” coming back, is a lesser such instance.

Obviously other authors do this as well and not under the label “rationalfic”, but it’s still something to present to people who are searching a rationalfic keyword, computationally or metaphorically.

More pragmatically, if you’d read a lot of rationalfic, you’d recognize this as being written in a particular tradition and not just because it’s me writing it. E.g. instead of there being a single point of departure, there’s a lot of little reinterpretations that are all in standard rationalfic directions. Asuna sees the answer sooner, Kayaba has additional motives, etc.


Alexander Wales: With Rule of Cool you’re basically saying to your audience “I don’t want you to think about this. Just accept that it’s awesome and move on.” Rational Fiction is about analysis and you’re inviting your audience in to look at things and question things. If you then include things that don’t make sense or they’re not explained or justified, and they’re just there because they’re cool, that breaks what you’re trying to do. (Rationally Writing Ep 5)



As to rational fiction per se, it’s simply a convenient label for a genre with specific characteristics, much like “romance”, “Western”, “hard SF”, etc are labels for specific genres.

A few key points:
Again, the term was invented as a shorthand for “well-written literature that has these specific characteristics.”
Characters in rational fiction should not be Vulcans. As has been pointed out elsewhere in the thread, factoring your emotions into your decisions is useful.
Anyone who is trying to write rationalist fiction is doing it deliberately, but people have been writing things that would fit the “rational writing” label for as long as pens have existed, much like people were writing science fiction before that specific term was invented. Again, “rational fiction” is just a category label.
…There’s no requirement that it be all about science or munckinry, although those things tend to come up because, let’s face it, science is the way that humanity has been winning over the animals for the last fifty millenia.

…Of course there’s a lot of debate about what falls into the category, but there’s debate about everything. Is Firefly science fiction, science fantasy, Western, romance…? (Answer: it has characteristics of all of those.)


OP lost: “fiction in which the narrative centers on the protagonist’s systematic, detailed, well-reasoned, and focused efforts to resolve a practical and immediate problem facing them, in such a manner that the reader can follow every step from their perspective”.

But that raises the question, wouldn’t mystery fiction be rational then? My gut-instinct is “No”, which is weird because mystery has all the hallmarks of my definition. Of course, gut instinct is a stupid reason by itself to exclude mystery from my rational definition, so checking in over at Wikipedia (if any of you lit majors have a better definition of mystery, I would be glad to hear it), the definition of the genre is: “Mystery fiction is a genre of fiction usually involving a mysterious death or a crime to be solved. In a closed circle of suspects, each suspect must have a credible motive and a reasonable opportunity for committing the crime. The central character must be a detective who eventually solves the mystery by logical deduction from facts fairly presented to the reader.”

And now I realized why I don’t consider mystery to be necessarily rational. The “Ah-Ha!” moment isn’t limited to just solving a crime or death. It can also be applied to discovering how to beat an enemy, accomplish a journey or just surviving whatever’s going on in the story at the moment. And if you say that the mystery label can be applied to those cases as well, then, what isn’t mystery?

And I think that’s an important point. There can be parts of a fic that is rational and parts that aren’t. And I think that you can apply that to a broader field. There can be both rational and irrational mystery fics, rational and irrational fantasy, rational and irrational sci-fi, etc.


I would like to note that for as much as “Rational Fiction” can be annoying, there’s a hell of a lot more fiction out there in the world that appears to be just as didactic for an “Irrationalist” viewpoint. By which I mean the huge volume of works that imply that Science is Bad, that fill their “intellectual” characters roster with either Straw Vulcans or pathetic nerds, that insert ghosts or psychic powers or other New Age-y things into otherwise realistic settings (in, obviously, non-fantasy series), and in other ways attempt to comply with the stereotype that writers are art majors. And I find that as frustrating as hell, and a lot more so than “rationalist” fic because it’s a lot more ubiquitous and unlike rationalist stuff is very rarely clearly labeled as such. At least when I pick up a fic that trumpets “Rational!Protagonist” I know what I’m getting, just as if I but something out of the Inspirational section at a bookstore. Neither of which I generally do, because of the clear labeling, but the point is that it’s courteous.


On the rational writing podcast, when discussing the definition of rational fiction, the idea that it was ‘thinky’ fiction came up, that a common feature in rational stories is that they made you think about what was going on.
I think it’s slightly more general than that, and I’ll say that I think the (or, at least, a) core of rational fiction is that intelligence is a core virtue of the story. Battles will be won and lost primarily based on who had the better plan, who prepared more, who improvised the quickest, and so on. This would be in contrast to the ‘generic action show’ where Determination and Fighting For What You Believe In are core virtues that decide the outcome. In generic action show, whether the battle is won or lost depends almost entirely on whether the hero can get his second wind when things look down (often triggering some superpower to justify the success of said second wind, but it’s the same thing).
This explains quite a few things, such as why rational fics tend to have anticlimaxes more than usual. You specifically need a long, drawn-out fight to show off the raw willpower and determination of the protagonist at the climax, but in rational fiction you don’t specifically need that, since you can show off the cunning of the protagonist and the extent they planned and prepared or the quality of their improvisation in a single scene where the enemy was outsmarted and simply had no hope of victory. Of course, you can do drawn out fights this way too, but the key is that it’s not required. The focus on intelligence also helps explain the attention to detail and consistent rules, since your protagonist is supposed to live and die based on whether they can plan things out and grasp for advantages, and an inscrutable ‘as the plot demands’ ruleset is incompatible with that, whereas you don’t need the rules to behave the same way to force your protagonist to the brink of defeat before their show of determination and second wind.

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