Even your make-believe worlds, characters, and creatures should still contain believable elements. Use what you know about human nature, history, economics, government, and science to make your world feel real.
Movies are full of ostentatious stunts and explosions that most people will admit are unrealistic. However, most of us in the audience don’t really care. We are willing to suspend our disbelief in Hollywood stunts because they don’t (usually) detract from the story. That, and explosions are pretty cool…
I’m not as forgiving when Hollywood messes up basic facts. For instance, in the movie, Rush Hour, a member of the LAPD has applied for the position of special agent at the FBI, but his knowledge about how the application process works is horribly wrong. (I know this because I’ve actually applied to the FBI.) Obviously, the writers didn’t do even research on the process. Simple errors like that can detract from the story and cause your readers to stop suspending their disbelief.
To surround your make-believe elements with believable elements, two things must happen:
- You need to become an expert in a lot of subjects, especially fiction where you are creating another world.
- You need to avoid making huge mistakes that a basic Google search will expose.
To create believable fiction, you need expertise in:
Human nature. If the characters in your novels behave contrary to your reader’s experience with human nature, he or she will have a harder time believing in your world. This requires understanding of sociology and history. History provides us with a plethora of examples of how humans behave. History also answers the “what if” questions you might have about situations you’ve created in your world.
I wrote my second novel, The Elysian Chronicles: Out of the Shadows, after Vladmir Putin finished his first stint as the president of Russia and was serving as only the prime minister. The prospect of him running for president again seemed silly to many. I disagreed, and though I didn’t actually name the Russian president Vladmir Putin in my book, I gave him the initials VP (for Vascha Polzin) in order to let savvy readers know who I meant. Guess who is president of Russia now—again? That’s right. Vladmir Putin. No, I’m not a prophet. Yes, I understand human nature, history, and Russian history.
NOTE: If your character or people group is not human, you might not be able to rely on what you know about human nature. The key to make your non-human character believable is to establish the species’ nature, and stay consistent with it. For instance, in Star Trek, Vulcans are believable because they are consistently logical. If Vulcans wavered from their nature, Star Trek’s fan base would revolt.
The Opposite Sex. If you write for both genders, you need to understand how the opposite sex actually works. If your men behave like women, or if your women behave like men, you will lose half of your audience. (If you write gender specific fiction, ignore this, but don’t be surprised if the opposite sex consistently makes fun or your characters. I mean seriously, how many women actually behave like those in comic books? And how many men act like those in romance novels?)
Economics. If you are writing fiction that takes place in the real world, you need to understand the economic system in which you are writing. If you are creating your own world, research the economic systems, both today and throughout history. Remember that history provides us with all the examples we need, and that includes economic history. Use these examples as archetypes that your reader can relate to. If your economic system differs from what we know of human nature, explain why. Don’t create a world where people freely give to each other and have no form of payment unless you first explain why they are perfect.
Government. Know how governments work. Study different forms of governments throughout history (and don’t be afraid to steal ideas from them). Your reader will be much more comfortable with the government you create if he or she can relate to it.
Science and technology. For science fiction writers, this is a must, but it’s also true for the rest of us, even mainstream writers. In this information age, you don’t have an excuse for not knowing how things work. If you mess up science, your reader will stop believing anything you present to them. Knowledge of science and technology can do a few things for you:
- It can help you create your own forms of fantasy, steampunk, and science fiction technology. I use an encyclopedia of weapons as research when I’m trying to create fantasy weapons. It helps to know how a crossbow works if I want to tweak it.
- It can make you look like a genius. Jules Verne. Submarine. End of illustration.
Languages. If you want to surround your make-believe world with believable elements, you need to create names, languages, and dialects that people can relate to. Here are a few tips.
- Base languages on already existing languages: Tolkien based a lot of his elvish language on Finish.
- Ask yourself if you really need the apostrophes and other symbols: You may be tempted to use apostrophes in your names and languages because they look “cool and fantasy-esque,” but consider how real languages work. Their symbols have a grammatical purpose. Create consistent rules for your apostrophes or eliminate them.
- Choose character and location names that sound realistic: Creating a new world with words and names that sound silly will only make readers stop suspending their disbelief. Use a thesaurus, other languages, or Wikipedia as a starting point for your names. You can also use www.babynames.comand other such sites to find real names that aren’t as well known.
- Good example of names: Star Wars, Episodes 4-6: Han, Luke, Leia, Obi-Wan, Chewbacca, Yoda, Lando. These names are different, but they sound like normal names.
- Bad examples of names: Star Wars, Episodes 1-3: planet Naboo, Count Dooku. This is one of the reasons why people had a hard time accepting Lucas’s new worlds is real.
What to take from this: Do your research. Make your world logical. We live in a world powered by Google, so you have no excuse. When you show adequate knowledge on the real things, your readers will accept the make-believe ones.
Mainstream writers: Don’t have your characters apply to the FBI without knowing how the process works.
Speculative writers: To make your world, creatures, and characters believable, you need to show the reader you have knowledge of conventional concepts. You can break with convention as long as you explain it (which means you still need to have knowledge of the concepts).
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.” Thanks for stopping by!
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.
Such great advice! I’m using this as a reference for the world building I am trying to do.