Posted by: kshayes513 | November 20, 2011

Building Authenticity Into Our Worlds

In my review of Unstoppable last time, I talked about how the film is lifted above the average Pow!Kaboom! action movie by aiming for an authentic portrayal of the railroad world.  Any story needs a bare minimum of authenticity to get your audience to suspend their disbelief and jump in. But I’m talking about a higher level of authenticity, the kind that makes people fall passionately in love with stories, characters and worlds. That’s what we’re looking for here. So what are some of the ways we can do that?

Know what you’re talking about. You have to know enough about whatever you’re portraying, to make it feel real. The languages and cultures in The Lord of the Rings feel authentic because even the invented ones grew from Tolkien’s lifelong study of ancient European languages and cultures. You don’t have to make a career study of every aspect of your world, but you need to know enough to convince most of your readers that you’re not just pulling details out of your– ahem!

And the more important something is to your story, the more you need to know about it.  If bows are a common weapon in your world, you might only need some quick research to make sure that you know the basic capabilities of the bow. But if your main character is a professional archer, you’ll need to know a lot about bows and other archery equipment, and you might even take a few archery lessons. (Don’t worry about getting a degree in every aspect of the world you’re writing about, though, because you’ll never be able to satisfy every reader on everything. No matter what the topic, you’ll always run across the specialist who calls you out on details within his own field of expertise).

Put your back into it.  Most worldbuilders draw maps, record chronologies, even make up languages and mythologies (my favorite is the rabbit mythology of Watership Down). For her novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke went a step further: she created a centuries-long history of English practical magic, including human and fairy personalities, reference works, footnotes containing long article quotes, and a great deal more- a history so believable that I actually looked it up on Wikipedia to reassure myself that it was all her own invention. That’s the kind of worldbuilding effort that not only gives your characters a rock-solid context, but makes unforgettable worlds.

Capture our imaginations. I think this is the single most important element of authenticity. Your alien or magical system or 23rd century technology can be as realistic as an encyclopedia, but if it doesn’t move and excite your audience, it’s a failure. On the other hand, a really exciting invention or culture or character can waltz right past our suspension of disbelief and take root in our imaginations.

Lightsabers can’t work in the real world, as my college roommate, a physics major, never tired of explaining to me in the Star Wars summer of 1977. But that didn’t stop her spending hours with flashlights and plexiglas rods, to design and construct a pair of lightsabers so we could be Darth Vader and Obi Wan for Halloween.  Score 50 for Imagination over physics !

You surely have your own short list of stories in any medium, that capture your imagination because they create an authentic experience of some kind. Please, share them here!

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