Writing: Using Imperfection to Make Fiction Feel Believable

Everything we experience will face the forces of failure, breakage, and decay. Your make-believe elements should be the same. Their imperfections can make them feel real and create the suspension of disbelief in the reader.

For the past few weeks, 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.”) This week, we are taking a closer look at the second rule for making readers suspend their disbelief and buy into our story’s make-believe elements: Rule #2—Make Your Make-Believe Feel Believable. We will be discussing these four techniques:

  • Use of sensory details
  • Creating imperfection
  • Relying on character reactions
  • The use of make-believe in everyday life

Today we will concentrate on using imperfection to make your make-believe elements feel real.

Our world is imperfect. We live in a world of failure, breakage, and decay. These things make life difficult for those of us living in this world. For authors, however, these things can actually make our lives easier for two reasons:

  • All stories need conflict and tension. Failure, breakage, and decay bring tension into stories.
  • Failure, breakage, and decay can bring a dose of reality into our make-believe elements. They make our make-believe feel believable.

Let’s analyze these three elements and how we can use them to create suspension of disbelief.

Failure: I love sports statistics. They are proof that even the best of us fail at what we are good at. For example, Derek Jeter’s on base percentage for 2012 was .379. Translation: When Derek Jeter stepped up to the plate in 2012, he had a 62% chance of making an out—of failing to do his job. NFL quarterbacks have it a bit easier. As of 2012, Drew Brees—one of the best quarterbacks playing in the NFL—has a lifetime pass completion percentage of 65.7%. This means every time he throws the ball, he has a 34.3% chance of missing his target. And these two gentlemen are some of the best in their respective sports!

Your characters need to fail at their ability to use make-believe elements on occasion. If Harry Potter has to struggle with his patronus charm, your character has to struggle with something as well—especially under pressure. Not only will it create tension within your story, but it will also make your make-believe elements feel real. (NOTE: some of your characters’ make-believe skills include the ability to recall knowledge about make-believe elements.)

Here are a few concepts to keep in mind regarding failure:

  • If your character has learned a new skill, his potential for failure is greater.
  • Pressure increases your character’s potential for failure. This is true for both physical skills and the ability to recall and apply information. Pressure also creates changes in your characters’ physiology, such as sweaty palms and butterflies in the stomach. Make sure to describe these things.
  • The more humans involved, the greater the potential for failure. If a master plan involves five people in five different places, each executing their role perfectly, you might be facing a high chance of failure.
  • The less often a character has used a skill or recalled knowledge, the greater the potential for failure. Create more tension by challenging your characters with needing to recall little used skills.
  • Actions and skills that a character performs too much can create overconfidence and therefore mistakes. Your characters might not pay attention to something they do all the time.
  • Failure includes loss. Nothing is more frustrating than when a necessary item is lost. Torture your characters (and readers) with this at will.

Breakage: Everything in this world breaks eventually. Your make-believe elements need to break as well—especially your technology (or “magic technology” in fantasy).

Here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to breakage:

  • The newest, “beta” forms of technology will be more prone to issues and bugs. Think of how many new updates Windows has to develop right after they come out with a new operating system. Magical items might work the same way. If your dwarf develops something new, it might not work properly, and he might need to take it back to the workshop.
  • The more complex and/or intricate the system, the higher the potential for breakage/failure. My home laptop rarely crashes and always communicates with the printer. The same can never be said for a computer that exists on huge network. This applies to all types of machinery as well as magic. If your character has developed a magical spell that has several steps and ingredients, the chances of mistakes are much greater.
  • Combining items from separate systems increases the potential for problems. For instance, in the office I worked in, our marketing guy used a Mac and everyone else used a PC. The moment we tried to hook his Mac up to the network, bad things happened. The parts for each computer didn’t fit together correctly, either.
  • The more delicate the parts, the greater the chance of breakage/failure. If your steampunk flying contraption is papier-mâché and held together with rainbow-colored tissue ribbons, your character might encounter some issues during flight.
  • The more people involved with making something work, the higher the chances of breakage/failure. See above.
  • If you want to know how to break things, you will need to know how they work to begin with. This means you will have do to a bit of research—even if your technology is science fiction and doesn’t really exist. You still need to know the concept of how it works so you can break it.

Decay: We live in a world of rust, rot, and decay. Your world is not brand new. It’s used. Make sure you show it. When Luke Skywalker first saw the Millennium Falcon, his first words were: “What a piece of junk!” The Millennium Falcon may have had it where it counts, but it suffered from decay just as everything else does.

Here are a few things to think about regarding decay:

  • Your environment affects the rate of decay. If your characters live in a world full of acid rain, think about its effects on stone and metal. If your environment is moist, it will affect items differently than a dry environment.
  • How often an item is used affects its rate of decay. An SUV owned by a contractor will look older and more used than an SUV owned by someone who works at a law firm.
  • Likewise, lack of human involvement can leave something in a state of disrepair. A manicured lawn looks much neater and newer than a lawn ignored by its owner (or a lawn without an owner).
  • Your worlds have a history. This history has decayed. You should have older homes, buildings, and monuments from your world’s history, which need to be decayed and old-feeling. These things give life to your world, and they make it seem real.
  • Study what makes something appear and broken decayed. Weeds, mold, rust, fungus, vines, and cracks are all signs of age and non-use.

What to take from this: Imperfection makes your make-believe elements feel real. You can create imperfection using failure, breakage, and decay. The good news: all of these elements create conflict and tension, which is a must for all stories.

Mainstream Writers: Your story takes place here on earth with humans as your characters. Failure is not only an option, it is a must! If everything in your world works perfectly, then you are the one writing the fantasy.

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.

Speculative Writers: Failure, breakage, and decay should not only affect your make-believable elements, but also your believable elements.

About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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2 Responses to Writing: Using Imperfection to Make Fiction Feel Believable

  1. Alisa Russell says:

    This works great for some world building I’m doing. Thanks!


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