Monday, July 19, 2010

Creating Believable Worlds

What does good fiction do? It transports the reader out of his world and into someone else’s. Sometimes that world is fantasy, sometimes it’s not. In either case, that world has to be believable or else the reader will roll his eyes, snap the book shut, and move on to something else.

So, how do we create strong, tangible, and believable worlds that will make the reader forget where he is?

Short answer: Research.

Long answer: throughout the years, I’ve heard varying opinions about writers doing research for their novels. Some have said this: “Of course a novelist should do research. Otherwise how can she know what she’s writing about?” Let’s call these people Team Yay. Often, people in Team Yay spend a good amount of time looking up the things they aren’t sure about or just plain don’t know. Some spend more time doing this than others, but when they’re done they are armed with a good amount of info to add to their stories.

Others have said this: “Why should you do research? It’s fiction! A novelist just makes it up as she goes.” Let’s call these people Team Boo. Often, people in Team Boo don’t want to get mired down in a bunch of potentially useless facts. As in, they wonder what’s the point of knowing a detail that never gets used in the story—if they happen to come across something they need to know, then they’ll will look it up. They are more interested in getting the story written rather than spending too much time gathering stuff they won’t need.

Which team are you in, Yay or Boo? Why? I think neither team is wrong as long as the information you include in your story is accurate. Sometimes a writer knows so much about the story that research isn’t necessary. But that writer still needs to pay attention to the details, and if she comes across something she doesn’t know, I think it’s imperative to research thoroughly. A cursory glance at info can result in a misunderstanding, which can lead to incorrect information.

I think anyone who regularly reads this blog knows I’m in Team Yay. Why? Because I need to have all my information up front before I write a single word. I also think anyone who regularly reads this blog knows that I do *way* more research than necessary. I do this because I never know what I’m going to need, and I like to have a lot to choose from. I’ve also discovered that sometimes research can change my story’s direction. I may think it needs to go in a particular direction, but then discover something that makes that impossible. So, yeah, I’m all about the overabundance of research. :)

But what if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction? Those worlds are mostly made up by the author, and the rules and facts in real-world fiction may not apply. So, how do you create a solidly believable world in those genres?

Well, you still need to do research. There are some rules that apply to the universe that you just can’t get around, like gravity. Or the effects of massive heat or massive cold, the weight of snow and ice, which kinds of stones can create a spark, etc. You won’t need to do as much research with these genres, but you’ll likely need to do some. If you want these details to be different from what we know on Earth, then you’ll need to have a reason for it. For example, if everyone walks on the ceiling instead of the floor, then we need to know why. Saying ‘because I said so’ isn’t going to cut it for the reader (that only works for moms).

For the rest of your world, you need to sit down and define it. How does it work? What are its elements, weather patterns, levels of technology, etc? What holds it together and what can pull it apart? You need to sit down and create the rules that your world abides by, and then hold consistently to them as you write. Depending on where your story takes place, this may take as much time (possibly more) as it takes to research real-world fiction. But if you do this in earnest, you’ll end up with a rich and tangible place to transport your reader.


Martina Boone said...

Thanks for this post! I'm definitely team YAY. But I also find that I discover things about my world as I write that I wouldn't have thought of in a million years in planning it. The one thing that I believe you have to plan in advance are the rules. Especially if your world involves magic or power. The rules have to be consistent.Is there even a way to do that well if you're a pantser? If so, the brilliance of the mind required leaves me breathless.

Oh, and I hope you don't mind if we include this in Friday's round-up of best articles for writers!


Tabitha said...

I have no idea how a pantser can discover and define at the same time. My brain certainly doesn't work that way. :) I have to have the bulk of the story defined first, because I know there are things I'm going to discover along the way, and I find it easier to deal with when it's not all at once. :)

And, link away! :)

Anonymous said...

Right now I'm RELUCTANTLY Team Yay. Because I'm instinctively drawn to the scifi route, that means I have to build worlds--and think of the outcomes of rules in those worlds. I find that's what scares me and grinds me to a halt. Now I'm working on a historical scifi--requires TONS of research. I need to figure out how much is enough, and convince my husband that I'm writing the whole time I'm doing it. I don't want him to label Team Yay as Team Procrastination.

Tabitha said...

LOL!! :) Yeah, there is a fine line between preparing and procrastinating. I was always afraid that I was subconsciously procrastinating with all the prep work I do, so I used to cut it short. Then I'd get really frustrated when I ran into complications later, so I tossed that whole idea out the window and indulged in the over-preparing. :)

Unknown said...

I am also squarely in the "research until you can barely see" (or, Yay!) team. Research helped me deepen my story and provided such rich backstory that even my wildest imaginings couldn't have conjured.


Tabitha said...

Exactly! I think that, even if you don't use specific pieces of research, it will still come out in subtle ways and make the story that much deeper.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I definitely agree you have to do research, even if you write fantasy or sci fi. I suppose how much you need depends on your story. Some stories that focus on a particular legend or mythology need lots of research.

I'm amazed at how much just reading and being observant will give me creative ideas, even to add to a fantasy world. So I don't mind the research. I wish I had more time to just read non fiction books that might help.

Shannon said...

Research can spark ideas. Without research, you're locked into what you know and what the limits of a less-experienced imagination. The wider the area of your experience, the wider your imagination. The more you know about geology, for example, the more strange facts you know. The more strange facts, the more material for your imagination.

I am definitely Team YAY!

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