Is Your World Believable?

Realism is the key factor when creating a setting for your characters.   Readers need to feel as though they share a space within the experience of a story and the only way to do that is to research your setting well.

THE EASY WAY

If the story is in a modern city or town, then most of your work is done.  There are so many nuances of life that escape our notice because we live them every day.  Even so, if your city is in a foreign country, then you still have work to do.  Their customs and norms will shape the environment (and vice versa, depending on what articles you read).

SCI-FI/FANTASY

The more remote your setting, the more work you will need to do to make it believable.  One of my biggest hang-ups is the single-biome world.  Star Wars is famous for this.  Tatooine, the desert planet, would have no breathable oxygen, as would the ice world, Hoth.  Conversely, the forest moon of Endor would be too oxygen rich for human life.  This doesn’t even go into livable temperature ranges or anything else that should be considered.  Kevin Anderson’s careful work in the Saga of the Seven Suns series balances realism in his off-world settings.

QUICK TIPS

  1. Find a model location.  This will give you a starting point.
  2. Read everything you can about the types of plant and animal life that are common as well as typical weather conditions.
  3. Visit if you can.  Experience is the best teacher for any writer.  If you can’t afford a ticket, you can afford a YouTube search.
  4. Get creative.  Now that you know the area, isolate defining signatures of the location.  For general fiction, that may be all you need.  For the fantastic, you will need to exaggerate your jungle setting to include extremes like in the “Avatar” movie.

When to Research and Why?

People hear “research” and their eyes glass over.  No doubt, the problem lies in how the word was used in our high school classrooms.  Flashes of lame topics and MLA formatting still wake me some nights.  Fortunately, the Internet has made information much more accessible and focused. There is a need to be wary regarding the quality of sources online, but that will be covered in a different post.

This post isn’t about how to research.  It is about when and why.

WHY RESEARCH?

People need to trust that the story they’re reading makes sense.   This doesn’t mean that the story needs to be a narrative thesis paper.  Stories do have to be internally consistent and meet logical expectations.  Historical fantasies need to be at least modestly historically accurate and science fiction has to follow and expand upon modern cutting edge theory. These expectations have to be met and readers will disconnect if you do not make the effort.

WHEN TO RESEARCH?

The simple answer to this question is: Research when you don’t know something.   Writers who don’t research are often torn to pieces by critical readers who do.

Even when writing fiction, it is impossible to ignore basic facts that surround a situation.  How many guns does a brig have?  What is the bilge of a three-masted ship?  What year did Blackbeard raid Charles Town?  These questions haunted me when I wrote my first book and their answers were required knowledge for the plot I crafted.

The times in which you don’t have to research are when they deal with locations, character types, and events that are completely self-generated.  If your books are composed of made-up histories and laws of existence, then the burden is on you to make sure that the world makes sense.  This is part of the need to remain internally consistent.   Even though you don’t have to look up any information, the rules you set for your world are a promise to the reader that you won’t cheat your way out of a problem.