Realism is critical for good fiction writing, but speculative fiction demands some nonrealism, too. How do you find the right balance of realistic and nonrealistic features, and how do you make them work together harmoniously?
What You Don’t Know CAN Hurt You
Once upon a time, people laughed at Donald Rumsfeld for talking about “unknown unknowns,” but he was right to be worried about them, and writers should be concerned about them as well. What you don’t know that you don’t know (probably) won’t start a nuclear war, but it can cost you credibility—and readers.
However, identifying what information is critical to your story, getting it right despite sometimes conflicting sources, and making your fictitious details fit naturally into a factual framework is tricky business. If you are not already an expert in the disciplines that underpin your narrative, here are some important things to consider.
Do Your Homework
First, you need to know how to do research properly. If you hate doing research or just feel overwhelmed by the process, you’re going to think I’m a professional killjoy. However, if you have any concern about the quality of your work and how it might be received by your audience, it is absolutely critical that you seek strong resources. If you don’t care how good your work is … well, I’ll just wish you good luck.
First and foremost, look to primary sources as much as possible. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you can read the original texts, DO IT and draw your own conclusions instead of fumbling blindly through secondary sources. When you do go for secondary sources, look for reputable researchers, institutions, and publishers. Find out who the superstars of that discipline are and what kind of research they do.
Secondary sources may help to explain some things found in the primary resources, but they can also be loaded with the writer’s interpretations, which may not accord with those of their peers. Where possible, try to get a general sense of what points the experts disagree on. Sometimes getting diverging opinions can help you understand primary sources, and it can inspire you to find new perspectives and ideas to use in your story.
Do not depend heavily on Wikipedia, Yahoo Answers, Quora, or any other open forum where anyone can say absolutely anything on any topic or modify someone else’s content. These sources aren’t always very reliable, so unless you already understand the topic well enough to sort the wheat from the chaff, you risk falling into the thresher. If you do know enough to identify good information on a subject, you likely already know how to pick high-quality sources and would probably use only these resources as a last resort. If you just need a place to start your research, these sites are okay but make sure you verify the information through more reliable channels.
Reputable encyclopedias are typically strong on accuracy but don’t offer a lot of comprehensive information. However, if all you need is an overview, they’re perfect.
Make sure your sources aren’t horrifically outdated. Some disciplines evolve more slowly than others, but as a general rule, you’ll want to stick to content that was published in the last 25 years or so. If you’re writing science-based content, try to keep it within the last 5 to 10 years.
If you need a little help recognizing reliable sources, use the <ahem> CRAAP test to determine whether or not you should trust the information.
Above all, NEVER fall into the trap of thinking readers won’t notice that you’ve made factual errors. Some readers may not notice and others may not care. However, there will be those who realize that you’ve made an error or just done sloppy work and it will affect their enjoyment of the story. It may even earn you some bad reviews.
Even if a detail seems trivial, you should make a conscious and thoughtful decision about whether or not factual accuracy is important there. Adelheid Fischer points out that “words reveal — often betray — what we attend to, what we value, what we need to carry out a full life.” So make sure that you are paying attention, because I can guarantee that others will be.
Know Your Genre
Writing speculative fiction gives the author a lot of room to play with reality, but some genres are more flexible than others. How much work is needed to persuade readers to suspend their disbelief will depend on what you’re writing.
Stories with Fantastical or Supernatural Elements
Broadly speaking, most fiction is written in the real universe or in a universe with the same physical rules. The easiest ways to bend the natural laws is to employ magic or other supernatural powers. Whether you reveal the inner workings of the magical system or shroud them in mystery, readers who like fantasy or supernatural/paranormal fiction are expecting some physics-defying events. Frankly, they’re looking forward to it.
The nice thing about magic is that you can easily just add it into the world. It might be a rational magical system where there is some overarching logic to how the magic works, or it might be a bit more haphazard. Either way, your characters will be able to do marvellous, impossible things.
That doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want, of course. You still have to tell a good story and make sure these extraordinary elements fit into it, but as long as you can create an interesting and internally consistent system you should be okay. Mythcreants has some good advice about developing magical systems in general and rational magical systems in particular.
Science fiction is trickier than fantasy because even in “soft” sci-fi you can’t just tack on new natural laws, wave your hands, and expect the reader to clap wildly. The reader does not approach science fiction with quite the same expectations that they bring to fantasy. You must convince them that fictional elements fit within the natural laws of the universe, and that means you need to understand how the factual elements of your story work. The poorer your understanding of real science and technology, the more likely you are to introduce elements that don’t make sense or that blatantly contradict actual physical laws, making the reader’s disbelief vanish in a puff of smoke.
While I eschew the criterion of plausibility for reasons I explained here, I still insist that my authors ensure their systems are internally consistent. That probably looks like a lot of hairsplitting, as you could argue that fictional science which is consistent with real science is inherently plausible, but I believe it creates an unfair burden on the author, especially when actual scientists don’t always agree on what is plausible. For years, the scientific community at large considered multiverse theory to be implausible; now some scientists are actually looking for evidence that it might be true. Since science fiction writers aren’t necessarily scientists, expecting them to make plausible science doesn’t make sense.
On the other hand, all stories need to be internally consistent, and that goes doubly so for sci-fi. Your audience is likely to be science savvy, and the harder your science fiction, the higher their expectations. If you start trying to change the laws of physics, you had better understand how the universe would change as a result, because you can be damned sure some of your readers will.
Creating strange future technologies and materials typically works well because the reader can at least assume that these are the results of research and development, but you should be wary of overexplaining. Some description of the fictional science is necessary to make it comprehensible, but if you’re not careful, you’ll end up info-dumping all over the reader. In the worst case, you may actually create inconsistencies that destroy suspension of disbelief. Knowing when to let the reader make their own assumptions is an absolutely critical skill for science fiction writers.
Historical Fiction and Mythic Fantasy
Writing in a historical or mythical setting can be a lot of fun but it poses some very serious challenges. Presenting a historical culture—or a modern culture that is different than your own—in a way that is accurate and respectful while still making it interesting and intelligible to your readers requires a tremendous amount of research and careful thought.
If your story is set in a real-world historical period, you’ll need to understand the attitudes and lifestyles of the period, even if you are making someone travel back in time with their newfangled ideas and contraptions. Your readers should be able to see and hear and smell this long-ago world and connect with its people, so it’s your job to find out what this world was like. You’ll also want to get the significant details about the location correct, so find yourself some old-timey maps.
If your story is based on a historical mythology, you would be wise to have a strong understanding of the culture from which this mythology arose. Sometimes the gods and heroes of a mythology do things that would be incomprehensible to people of other cultures, so you’ll need to find some way of explaining these behaviours without resorting to an unwieldy info-dump. You may also find that you need to modify the myths for narrative purposes, and understanding their cultural basis will help you make choices that honour the spirit of the myths.
Keep the Love in Your Labour
Writing is a ton of work even if you don’t have to spend a lot of time researching and verifying facts. Sometime research can be really fascinating and engrossing; sometimes it will make you want to stick your head in a meat grinder. As always, keep your eyes on the prize: that finished book/short story/poem/essay/whatever.
Unless you’re operating on a tight deadline, you are allowed to take breaks, write other parts of your book or just write other things—just make sure that you come back to the project eventually. It will be worth it in the end.