In this series of guest posts, I’ve been honored to bring to you writers who I hope have been able to bring insight into various processes for creating fiction. But what about creating convincing fiction?
I’m pleased to introduce Cara Michaels to address this issue–research. How much do you need for your story to breathe, and what exactly makes readers wrinkle their noses?
A Dreamer Learns the Importance of Rules
Early in my writing—as Carl Sagan might’ve said, billions and billions of years ago—I didn’t dwell much on accuracy (Such as knowing Carl actually said ‘billions upon billions’). I had magic, pissed-off dwarves, badass heroines (haven’t changed much there), and imaginary places not governed by any rules I knew about. I didn’t give a rat’s ass about accuracy. I probably hadn’t even added the word to my lexicon yet. But as time passed and I found my reading-self scoffing at fictional implausibilities, I realized something.
Every place and person, whether imagined or not, has rules.
Rules are the skeletal structure lending your worlds and characters the support they need to make them believable. Do they all have to be based in reality? Of course not (you mean alohomora doesn’t open your doors?). But they should be consistent.
Believable Characters: A Tiny Woman and Her Fat Boy
About 5 years ago, a friend and I read a manuscript submission. For me, there were so many things wrong with this poor story that finding a place to even start was difficult. My friend had no such issues.
The female Main Character (MC) of the paranormal romance tale was about 5’2” and Hollywood thin. Nothing so wrong with or unusual about that, but… This MC’s ride of choice happened to be a Harley Fat Boy.
My friend, roughly the same height, but not of the starvation-diet variety, jumped on this detail. Her husband owned a Fat Boy and she had been on it multiple times. Aside from the near 700-lb curb weight of the bike, she pointed out she could just touch her toe down on one side, while the other foot dangled.
Me: Could you even get the bike upright to start it?
Friend: Doubt it. I’d probably drop it.
Lesson to be learned here? The Harley undoubtedly seemed like a badass ride for the para-rom chick. However, the first bump into someone who knew what they were talking about turned badass into ass.
Say you’ve got a whiz kid astrophysicist character and only .05% of your potential audience is actually a whiz kid astrophysicist. Or any kind of astrophysicist for that matter. Assume this niche is reading your story.
As writers, we’ll never get all the details correct because there are just too many of them and most of us can’t pay assistants or take time away from the jobs that put food on the table to go interview the real thing.
A little research can help you get enough of the details right though, and the result is believable characters.
As a bonus, you won’t get outed all over the interwebs for your slim, 5’2”, astrophysicist MC and her Harley Fat Boy.
Believable Worlds: Gravity, Velocity, and Mass, Oh My!
As Scotty most memorably informed Kirk: I cannot change the laws of physics!
If you’ve ever seen a Michael Bay movie, you’ve probably wondered (as I often do) how the man continues to get jobs (besides the fact that he has scads of money to throw around, great marketing teams, and meatheads like us who keep buying tickets). I mean, did anybody buy the whole, “we need oil platform lugs to blow up an asteroid” thing? Anyway, Mr. Bay likes to ignore certain principles of physics that frequently jerk me straight out of my happy corner of suspended disbelief by the collar.
No matter what world you build, you need consistent rules. If you’re using the Earth we all know and love, take that into consideration when you start punishing your poor characters.
Remember Transformers? Remember when Sam fell some ten stories off a building? In Optimus Prime’s hand? The whole way down I gaped at the stunt. Does Optimus have some kind of built-in shock absorbers? Because I think Sam just fell a hundred feet in something as cushy as a plummeting elevator.
In writing my Gaea’s Chosen series, I get daily excuses to dive head first into research rabbit holes. In sending twenty people into deep space, I needed realistic answers to tons of questions. Where would we go? How fast could we travel? How long would it take to get there?
In The Mayday Directive, I wrote a drowning scene based off every flailing moment I’d seen in television shows and movies. The scene didn’t quite jive though. I wanted more details. I wanted to know what the character would really be capable of doing. What I discovered was that drowning is nothing at all like what we see in the majority of movies and TV. Drowning is very quiet and sneaky, and the reality proved much scarier and effective in a first person POV scenario.
On the badassary front, I discovered a developing technology known as electric reactive armor, which became the foundation for the electrically charged arc blades. I knew what I wanted for weapons, I just wanted to see where we were on the development scale between “carved stone blade” and “lightsaber.” Knowing this armor idea is out there gave me a stepping stone for my arc blades.
The character interactions in the series are the true heart, but these details add irreplaceable depth and urgency to the stories.
The Devil Is In Your Details
Dot your i’s and cross your t’s around him, or he will bend your manuscript over the nearest flat surface, and your readers will know it. Oh, they might trudge to the end of what they’re reading if they paid for it, but they might not, too.
More importantly, they might write you off if they see your name again.
You are the cruel, heartless God of your world. Take the time to make it believable, and your readers will happily follow you.
Cara Michaels is a dreamer of legendary proportions (just ask her about the alien pirate spaceship invasion). Her imagination is her playground and nothing is quite so much fun for her as building new characters and new worlds with at least an edge of the fantastic. She’s writing whenever the opportunity presents itself and can typically be found tinkering with half a dozen projects. Occasionally all at once.
She calls Florida ‘home’ when she’s not busy swearing about giant bugs and humidity. She has one super-cool fiancé who doesn’t (usually) mind the hours spent writing, editing, writing some more, and editing a lot more, one son with aspirations of becoming either a great wizard or an artist, and three cats who enjoy sleeping on her works in progress.