Writing Fact into Fiction

For those who write science fiction and fantasy, creating a realistic world involves a lot of knowledge. Suspending disbelief is the art of convincing your reader that the impossible is actually possible. To do that, you need to twist facts to create believable fiction.

Depending on the circumstances, you don't need to twist the facts at all. Arthur C. Clarke said it best with, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” To your characters, magic is something like our science. It is something that can be defined and quantified. It is something that is taught and learned. It is something that is a normal part of their lives — even when it is rare, unusual, or awe-inspiring.

Magic, be it beast or intangible force, works best when the reader forgets it is magical and is so focused on the story and the consequences of the magic being used. It works best when the lines between fact and fiction are thoroughly blurred. Magic is something that is supposed to capture the imagination and help you pull your readers on for a breathless roller coaster ride. You know you're doing your job when your readers don't question every mechanic of your magic system. Questioning isn't bad, but if they focus on questioning your magic system, you haven't done your job — you haven't created a story that overcomes the mechanics of your facts and fiction.

Magic can be absurd. It can be silly. It can be a romp through Pratchett's Disc World — which we all know isn't feasible as far as our world goes. But, for his world, and the people who live in his world, it's real.

And he does a marvelous job of the absurd with just enough fact to back it to string readers along.

To return to the quote for a moment, it's a pretty common quote, and one that I've always liked, especially when I'm working on a sci-fi. It's something I also apply to my fantasy writing. The idea that it presents is accurate: When I look at what my husband does (as a programmer) I often feel that he's waving his fingers and performing voodoo magic. He types letters that should look normal but don't and this translates into computers doing things!


So, how can you create believable fiction based on fact? I tend to follow one rule: Remember the Consequences.

By its very definition, magic isn't something that is real. However, consequences need to exist in order for any magic system to work. For example, if I create a world where there are magicians that use fire as their element, I need a thorough knowledge of how fire works. How the character creates the fire is secondary to how the character uses the fire. There should always be a price to magic — no matter what scale. There should always be a reaction when that magic is used.

Exhaustion is a commonly-used ‘price' of magic. Casting a spell might be similar to running a race. It drains the body of physical strength. Magic could be fueled by the magician's life span. It could be fueled by blood. There are many ways you can use consequences to add depth to your world. Just don't forget to add them. A world without consequence, in my opinion, isn't a world worth reading about — and that isn't a good thing when your world is as important as the characters your story is about.

Just my opinion, of course. I expect more than a few people are getting upset that I consider the world and magic system as important as the characters. Characters, after all, are a product of the world they live in. They can't exist without that world, and if you want believable, sympathetic characters, you need the world that allowed them to become those characters.

In order to accomplish this, and create realistic — or believable — consequences, you need to have a firm understanding of the basics of many subjects. Knowledge is power, and the more you know, the better your world and your characters become.

This is where I direct you to read. Start with a subject that you like. It could be horses, tofu, or even naked mud wrestling. Learn the basics. By basics, I mean just that — ten or twenty minutes of basic reading on the subject. Find another subject that relates to it. Read, absorb, learn. You don't need to remember everything. You don't even need to take notes at this point.

All you need is a basic understanding of society, of animals, of science, and most importantly, and of the world around you. The more you know, the better your story will be, the richer your world will be, and the stronger your characters will be. When you understand the fundamental basics of the world, that is communicated in your writing. You also won't put your foot in your mouth when you make a claim that just isn't true… such as water shrinking when it turns to ice rather than expanding.

That leads me to the most important point of this post: It is impossible to know it all. So, writers must research fact to turn it into fiction. If you're playing with the weather, research the type of weather you're playing with. Then, twist fact and turn it into your fiction. Do you have sudden storms that spawn tornadoes? Earth has that. Use the real warning signs of a tornado to help suspend disbelief.

You won't fool everyone. But, don't worry about that. You just need to fool most people.

Here are a few research templates I tend to use when I need information on certain subjects.

For Animals / Plants / Living Things

  • Scientific / Common Names (This helps me find more information on them via Google or at the library)
  • Common Habitat
  • Can the creature be raised in captivity? Yes/No & Why/Why not? (This helps me identify how sturdy the animals are — animals with high adaptability can often be bred in captivity.)
  • Appearance / Markings Unique to the creature or plant
  • How does the creature or plant reproduce?
  • What are its habitat thresholds? (What is the minimum and maximum temperatures it can survive at? What food sources does it require?)
  • How intelligent are the animals? Can they learn tricks or be trained?
  • What eats the plant or animal? What is their role in the ecosystem? What does the animal or plant eat?

For Culture / Society

  • General Research – Evolution of a Similar Society (Most fantasy societies have Earth counterparts or something that is similar — research one of these societies / cultures. This is history research.)
  • Maps – How did the terrain change a culture / society? Research a society / culture on Earth with a similar terrain type as your fantasy or science fiction society. Twist your facts from there.
  • Food Sources — Food is a notable motivation for a culture / society. What foods do your people eat? How would these culinary choices change them as a society?
  • Shelter — Shelter plays an important role in survival. Think about where your characters live, what they have to do to maintain their homes, and what consequences they face if they can't reach shelter.
  • Water — Without water, people die. In less than a week, as a general rule. You can live for up to a month without food. Consider this carefully.
  • Social Tiers — Let's face it, humans are social creatures that rank each other all of the time. We're judgmental, as a general rule. We form niches, castes, and groupings within society. How does your society handle this very human aspect of life?

For Magic / Sciences

  • What real life science would your magic use? Physics? Biology? Identify it.
  • Do basic research of all science elements. If you use elemental magic, you'll need to learn about the behavior of fire, the properties of stones (Geology), weather, oceanography, etc.
  • Confirm physical reactions of human victims. Does someone freeze to death? Study hypothermia. Do you have a healer? Get a basic understanding of human cell regeneration and healing.
  • Make a resource list for all studied items — you'll likely have to research it again if you don't.

These are just a few of the things I consider and research when I work on my fantasy novels. Because I'm careful about research and tend to read more than I should, drafting doesn't involve a lot of research for me anymore: I reinforce what I already know, confirm what I'm uncertain about, and write what I know. That confidence in knowledge becomes a suspension of disbelief in my readers — even when I do get it wrong. And sometimes, I do! (A lot of times I do… I just try to present it in such a way where I don't get caught at it.)

Good luck, I hope this helps you in your writing pursuits.

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