Making Make-Believe Believable: Surround the unbelievable with the believable by creating technology, weapons, and magic that is a hybrid of something already familiar to the reader.
If you are new to this blog, I’ve been writing a series of posts about writing speculative fiction, including fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, comic books, paranormal, and horror. For the full list, click here or on the category called “Making Make-Believe Believable.”
For the next week or so, we will be concentrating on the first technique for helping your reader suspend disbelief: Surround the Unbelievable with the Believable. Here are a few examples of methods we can use:
- The Details Example (click here for the blog post)
- The Transformation Example (click here for the blog post)
- The Social Norm Example (click here for the blog post)
- The Hybrid Example
- The Archetype Example
Today, we will focus on the hybrid example.
One of my favorite parts of George Lucas’s Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back occurs when Han Solo is trying to fix the Millennium Falcon’s hyper drive. (For the muggles: a hyper drive helps a spaceship ship travel at light speed). We see a tool box and a bit of Han’s arm as he is working on the hyperdrive in the belly of the ship. He ends up asking Chewbacca for the hydrospanners. Chewbacca brings Han something that looks like a tool. We assume it is the desired hydrospanner and continue watching the movie.
Lucas created a science fiction tool that was effectively a hybrid of a regular tool. (For you Americans, a spanner is actually the British term for a wrench.) We’ve heard of a spanner, and we can assume what hydro might imply. We buy into hydrospanners because they are similar to things we already know.
Imagine instead if Chewbacca had brought Han a huge contraption that had a robotic arm and a blow torch instead of an item that looked like it belonged in a toolbox. The audience would have trouble imagining Han trying to fix anything with it. It would feel unbelievable and out of place. It would make us wonder if Lucas was trying too hard.
If you are creating your own fantasy, science fiction, or steampunk world, you will need to make your own tools, weapons, and technology. Keep your audience grounded in your world by creating technology based on things they already know. Here are a few more examples:
James Cameron’s Avatar: Those of you who have spent time scuba diving on coral reefs probably recognized a few of the interesting life forms on Pandora. Here are a few things I recognized that reminded me of things I had encountered when scuba diving:
- · The phospholuminescence on the animals
- · The plant life that pulled away so fast when you touched it that it looked like it disappeared.
- · Many of the plants in general
The Elysian Chronicles: A Prophecy Forgotten by M. B. Weston. (I figure I may as well include some of my own work in here.) I needed to create many fantasy weapons in my Elysian Chronicles series. I could have created off-the-wall weapons that no one had ever heard of, or I could use real weapons as prototypes. I chose to model my weapons off real weapons, partially because I wanted the reader to relate to them:
- Blinders: I needed something that would help my angel creatures (called cherubians) escape from the enemy in the middle of the woods during battle. I developed blinders: a weapon similar to a flash bang. They exploded with blinding light and erupted in a mushroom cloud of smoke that my characters could fly into and use for escape. Readers understand flash-bangs and mushroom clouds.
- Arrows and sunstars: My characters use arrows and throwing stars—very believable items. My arrows and throwing stars, however, use crystal tips that send out light pulses that kill tissue. Arrows and throwing stars are believable. The concept of light energy and crystals might not be entirely believable to everyone, but it is a familiar concept. I surrounded the tissue-killing light pulses
“The Survivor” by M. B. Weston, a short story to be featured in the Dreams of Steam 3 steampunk anthology: I figure I should throw in a little bit of steampunk into this. For those of you unfamiliar with the steampunk genre, think of science fiction that takes place within the Victorian era and uses materials and technology that are mostly available at the time. For instance, you won’t find many nuclear bombs in steampunk, but you will find steam-powered dirigibles. In my short story, “The Survivor,” my character, Angelica Blackmore, needed a compass. I had to design one for her that could a) look like something a woman in the 1890’s would wear, b) work within the technological constraints of the time, c) be secret, and d) be readily available to her in a situation where she lost her luggage. After doing a bit of research, I discovered that women back then would wear timepieces around their necks, similar to how they might wear a necklace. Watches are round. Compasses are round. I put the compass on the back of the watch and enclosed it with a silver case. Both items are familiar to the audience. Combining them together is something they would find believable, even if such items weren’t for sale during the Victorian era.
What to take from this: Creating magic and technology that is a hybrid of something already familiar to the audience will help surround your unbelievable elements with the believable.
Mainstream Writers: You have all the elements of current technology available at your disposal. Be creative when using them. If you have a character who is a genius inventor, you, too, will need to make sure the unknown technology is similar to that which is known.
Speculative Writers: Don’t think you need to recreate the wheel when you are trying to create magic and technology. Use the hybrid method. It will feel more believable to your audience and save you some time.
Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.